I have two wonderful new YA fantasy novels to tell you about today. They are completely different in tone and style, but I think they actually pair very well together because they’re both about complex young women in non-Western cultures acting to support and save their female friends and family members. They are Serpentine by Cindy Pon and Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. If you follow me on the internet you probably know that I am friends with both of these authors, and Cindy and I co-run Diversity in YA together. This is not an unbiased review of their novels — it’s not a review at all! It’s an account of why I love these books, and why I think you might love them too.
Serpentine is set in Cindy’s fictitious Kingdom of Xia, which is inspired by ancient China; it was the setting of her first two novels, Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix. Serpentine is about a young woman named Skybright, who is the handmaid to a young woman named Zhen Ni. Skybright discovers early on in the book that she is not fully human; she is actually part serpent demon. The novel is about her coming to terms with this identity, and the way it affects her close sister-like relationship with Zhen Ni. It’s also about Skybright’s developing romantic relationship with a young warrior monk-in-training, Kai Sen, and how they deal with a sudden and frightening breach from the underworld that sends demons and ghosts flooding into the world of the living.
Like all of Cindy’s books, Serpentine is full to bursting with absolutely mouth-watering food descriptions! I highly recommend acquiring some Chinese food to eat while reading her book (except, maybe, during some grisly battle scenes). It’s also got a romantic relationship that is not like your average YA romance, because Skybright is not your average YA heroine. She is practical but also highly aware of her body — I mean, she’s a serpent demon! Serpent demons are known for being seductresses. And as a writer, I really appreciated the way Cindy embeds the entire story in a carefully drawn, multilayered, Chinese-inspired fantasy world. The place makes sense, from its food to its ghosts and its gods, and it’s described in a beautifully visual, intimate style. (And Cindy is also a brush artist!) There are no info dumps here to distract you, only a natural-feeling world brimming with the right details.
Court of Fives is written by Kate Elliott, who is well known among adult fantasy and science fiction readers for her many epic series, including Jaran and, most recently, her Spiritwalker trilogy. Kate is a meticulous world builder, and anybody interested in writing fantasy or science fiction should read her books and her blog to learn from her. What she does with Court of Fives is take her skill at world building and apply it to a YA sensibility — that means it’s character and immediacy of scene first, layered over a depth of world building that is apparent with every detail, from the clothing the characters wear to the etiquette they follow to the title itself.
The novel is the first in a trilogy about a girl named Jessamy, one of four daughters born to a Patron father (roughly, that means her father is privileged by birth) and a Commoner mother (I think you can guess what that means). Jessamy has four sisters, and Kate has said that these four young women were inspired by the characters in Little Women. Jes, as she is called, is a parallel to Jo, and like Jo, she’s a bit of a tomboy. Jes’s secret desire is to run in a Fives tournament, which is something like Ninja Warrior. (If you haven’t seen this TV show, which puts contestants through incredibly difficult obstacle courses, you should watch it!) Because of her mixed-race family’s tenuous political and cultural position, however, Jes is unable to do this publicly, until a tragic turn of events wrenches her familiy apart. Jes is sent to a Fives training stable and her mother and sisters to — well, it’s a spoiler, but it’s not a good place. In Court of Fives, Jes works to save her mother and sisters from this fate.
The aspect of Court of Fives that impressed me the most was the way class and race were so thoroughly and realistically intertwined in Jes’s world. Because she is biracial and also bicultural, Jes sees both sides of this world and is adept at navigating between them. Many YA novels are about a young person in an isolated hometown (or, you know, dystopian bubble city) coming to understand that the world is bigger than the small place they grew up in. Court of Fives presents a heroine who already knows the world is a big place because her father came from far away, but Jes doesn’t know, at the beginning, that this big world is even more complicated than she suspects. What she learns through a brilliant twist of storytelling is what many of us still haven’t learned today in the contemporary U.S.: that history is written by the victors.
This sounds really serious (and it is — in a good way), but Court of Fives is also brimming with breathtaking training montages and scenes of nailbiting competition, and there is a funeral scene in it that just blew me away. It’s different than Serpentine in tone, but both books take YA structures and tropes and elegantly turn them on their heads. Both are about heroines learning that their sprawling, complex worlds are also deep — both literally, as in what is underground is forced to the surface, and symbolically.
I also want to note that both books have supporting queer female characters. I really enjoyed each one, and there will be more of them in the sequels to both books.
If these books sound interesting to you, please check them out at your library or buy a copy to support the authors. Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives is available to purchase at your preferred retailer (B&N, Amazon, iBooks).
Tomorrow is the official release date for Serpentine, and if you buy a signed copy from Cindy’s local bookseller, Mysterious Galaxy Books by Sept. 12, she’ll send you one of her beautiful brush art cards with the book. You can also buy it from your regular preferred retailer (B&N, Amazon , iBooks).
I hope you enjoy Serpentine and Court of Fives as much as I did!