I grew up loving Kate Elliott’s CROWN OF STARS series and more recently devoured the first book of her SPIRITWALKER trilogy. Elliott crafts characters and worlds with exceptional detail, and we’re excited to talk with her about her latest series, COURT OF FIVES.
Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.
BFF: On her website, Elliott says: “I call this ‘Little Women meet American Ninja Warrior in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt,’ while the publisher has pitched it as ‘Little Women meets Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games.'”
Either way, we’re onboard!
1. What’s the story behind the story? Tell us a little about where you got the idea for COURT OF FIVES.
First, my spouse is an archaeologist, currently co-director of an excavation at the site of Tell Timai in the Delta region of Egypt. Timai was an important port during the period when first the Greeks (Macedonians) under the Ptolemaic kings and queens ruled and, after them, the Romans. The period has such an interesting dynamic with a dynasty of rulers who came from outside the country that I began to wonder how I would weave a fantasy out of it without setting it directly in historical Egypt.
Second, I wanted to write about what it means to grow up in a country where the indigenous culture has been suppressed, and how the main character slowly learns she has been taught only one way to view her own background.
Third, I love sports; I’ve always played sports, and I particularly love watching girls and women compete today because, when I was a child, sports weren’t seen as “proper” or “natural” for girls and yet I personally wanted nothing more than to play. So I really really wanted to write a story about a girl who is a serious athlete and fierce competitor.
Fourth, and finally, I wanted to write an epic fantasy story that revolves around four sisters and how they figure out how to make a place for themselves in a world with rigid social divisions where they literally don’t legally fit anywhere.
BFF: Wow, I love the mix of history, culture, and competition as your sources of inspiration. And I’m a little jealous of your husband’s archaeology gig!
2. What’s your personal favorite part about the story? A character you loved writing, a scene that gives you shivers in all the best ways, etc.
I love the ending. I wanted to set up a situation that has impact because of what the reader has learned and experienced along the way, and I think (I hope!) I managed that.
3. Jumping back to one of your older books, that final scene with Sanglant in KING’S DRAGON has stuck with me for years! It’s incredibly powerful, and I remember holding my breath leading up to it hoping you hadn’t actually killed my favorite character. Any backstory to share about the writing of that scene?
I guess this technically counts as a spoiler, but since the book was published in 1997 I figure there is some kind of statute of limitations.
As I wrote the “doomed defense” scenario in which soldiers ride to their death in an effort to save civilians, I knew Sanglant wasn’t going to die because of the geas laid on him by his mother. I also knew he was going to go through his own terrible nightmare (just as Liath has suffered hers). So thematically I wanted to create a situation in which two traumatized characters heal each other. However, that thematic element aside, I love the drama implicit in the hierarchy of dog eats dog, in this case literally, and I wanted to show Sanglant as a truly bad-ass fighter even or especially in the most desperate and inescapable circumstances. Strange as it may seem, scenes like that write easily because they are so emotional and so clearly defined.
BFF: You definitely accomplished the bad-ass part! And the thematic emotional depth and healing as well. It’s such a powerful scene (Clearly. It’s stuck with me for close to 15 years!). Anyone for whom that was an actual spoiler – go get your hands on KING’S DRAGON! It’s a great read.
4. What is most likely to draw you in to a book?
Characters whose lives and conflicts I want to follow.
5. What’s next on your plate?
The first volume of my next epic fantasy, BLACK WOLVES, will be published in November. Meanwhile, I am working on final revisions for the next COURT OF FIVES book while outlining the second BLACK WOLVES novel.
BFF: Talk about busy! It’s great to hear you have new series forthcoming. Now for the fun stuff…
Favorite dragon: For biology, I adore the life cycle of Robin Hobb’s dragons. So brilliant conceptually, and with such inherent drama. For character, very hard to choose because there are many. I love Smaug, of course, prototypical as he is of the old implacable dragons of yore. I also love Haku, the shape-changing River Spirit from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.
Favorite Shakespeare: I tend to identify favorite Shakespeare’s by productions rather than plays. This is a hard call because I have seen many great productions of many of the plays but I think I have to tip my hat to a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Henry IV Part I that was designed for a contemporary setting, with King Henry to all intents and purposes the dictator of a small nation whose first speech is given with other actors surrounding him with cameras and microphones. Prince Hal made his first entrance dressed as Boy George (for those who remember the 80s), Falstaff was an aging hippie who carried around a five pack of beer by the empty plastic ring, and Hotspur looked–well–hot in camo gear with a rifle slung over his back. The way Shakespeare can be transformed in so many ways always amazes me. My other favorite Shakespeare is Akira Kurosawa’s tragic film RAN, a brutal adaptation of King Lear that has one of the most searing and hopeless endings I have ever experienced in any narrative.
Favorite fantasy food: My favorite fantasy food is always a meal cooked for me by someone else where I don’t have to do the dishes either.
BFF: Ha, great answers all around! Thanks so much for joining us on the Author’s Couch, and best of luck with the COURT OF FIVES launch.
Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. She is the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, including Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. Forthcoming books include YA debut Court of Fives (August) and epic fantasy Black Wolves (October). She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer.
Watch for Part 2 of our Kate Elliott interview in the coming weeks, where we talk more details on worldbuilding!