Tag Archives: Kate Elliott

Code Switching in the Fantasy World of “Court of Fives”

In Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, Jessamy must navigate between different cultures, classes, and languages, as she competes in an athletic tournament and struggles to save her family.

By Kate Elliott

elliott-courtoffivesCode-switching refers to the practice of switching back and forth between two or more languages, or between two dialects of the same language. When I was a child, we spoke both English and Danish in our house because my mother is Danish and my father Danish-American. Out shopping my mother would often switch into Danish if she wanted to say something she didn’t want the people around us to understand.

Code-switching also refers to switching between “identities,” in both cultural and interpersonal situations.

My family has lived in the state of Hawaii for thirteen years. Originally settled by Polynesian seafarers (and later illegally annexed by the USA), Hawaii became an increasingly mixed community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because English was the second language of many of the immigrants but also the only one they all had in common, a creole English called “pidgin” developed that incorporated elements of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. (Here’s a 4 minute excerpt from a documentary on pidgin by my friend Marlene Booth and her co-director Kanalu Young: Hawaii Pidgin The Voice of Hawaii.)

While it is absolutely common today to hear people switching from Standard English to pidgin and back again, the use (or non-use) of pidgin also became a marker of status and assimilation as well as a means of discrimination. Decades ago, schools in Hawaii were segregated in part according to speech. My friend Gin recalls how her older sisters schooled her in Standard English when she was five so she could “test into” the “academic” elementary school instead of the school where the pidgin speakers were sent. This is a form of code switching as well.

In Court of Fives, code-switching is a constant part of the heroine’s life. I wanted to explore what it would be like for a girl who not only code switches between languages but also between cultural expectations and sub-cultures.

Jessamy’s parents come from different ethnicities, Saroese and Efean (also called Patrons and Commoners in the book). She knows both languages, is fluent in both, and can switch easily between the two in contrast to most of the population, who only speak either Saroese or Efean depending on their ethnicity.

But because Efea is a conquered country, and because the Saroese are the conquerers, she also must negotiate a far trickier form of code-switching: That between the class divide created by the privileged and powerful Patrons and the conquered and looked-down-upon Commoners.

Raised by a Patron father, Jessamy and her three sisters are expected to behave like Patron girls in their speech and their conduct in both private and public. The eldest and youngest sister look enough like their father that they can “pass” as Patron girls, but the situation for Jessamy and her twin Bettany is particularly complex because they are obviously mixed. To look at them is to see they have one Saroese and one Efean parent, a pairing not approved of and fairly uncommon in this society because it is literally illegal for a Patron to marry a Commoner. At the same time, even when Jes speaks Efean to Commoners, they can tell by her looks and speech and behavior clues that she “acts like a Patron,” and they see these ways of acting as pretentious and delusional (because what is the point of acting like a Patron when no Patron will actually accept you as one).

So, yes, I can and do describe Court of Fives as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy society inspired by ancient Egypt.” It is definitely a fantasy novel about sisterhood and family loyalty in the wake of treachery, a conquered country ruled within a rigid social hierarchy, a popular game called the Fives that’s more than it seems, and one girl’s challenge to run the Fives even though it is forbidden to her.

But embedded in that story is a girl caught between, who code switches as a constant and regular part of her life, and doesn’t quite have a place in either of her parent cultures. Jessamy has to find her own path, and it’s not going to be an easy road.


kateelliottKate 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 her YA debut Court of Fives, as well as Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. A new epic fantasy, Black Wolves, arrives in November. She lives in Hawaii. She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer. Her website is at www.kateelliott.com.

Court of Fives is now available.

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Don’t forget! You can enter to win Court of Fives and four other wonderful YA SFF novels at our Fantasy & Science Fiction Month giveaway (deadline Oct. 6)

New Releases – August 2015

The Girl at the Center of the World by Austin Aslan (Wendy Lamb Books)

“Leilani’s epilepsy gave her the ability to communicate with the entity protecting the Earth in The Islands at the End of the World (Random, 2014); now she must face the consequences of her decision to keep it here. Humanity may be safe from its own folly, but it continues to struggle without its conveniences, especially in isolated places like Hawai’i. To survive, Lei’s community returns to the old ways as opposed to the selfishness and turf wars of others. They are far from safe though. … Lei is a remarkable character who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, but she hardly does it alone. VERDICT An engaging and poignant follow-up with weighty and powerful themes of survival, cooperation, and human nature.” — School Library Journal

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray (Little, Brown)

“Bray illuminates the dark side of the American Dream in her long-awaited sequel to The Diviners (2012), weaving xenophobia, industrial progress, Jazz Age debauchery, government secrets, religious fervor, and supernatural horror into a sprawling and always entertaining narrative. … Bray is equally at home constructing gruesome deaths at the hands of bloodthirsty ghosts and deploying incisive commentary on the march of progress, both of which inflict their share of damage.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Most Likely to Succeed by Jennifer Echols (Simon Pulse)

“Kaye is senior in a town on the gulf coast of Florida. Everything in Kaye’s life seems to be perfect. She’s vice president of student council; dates the president, Aidan; is captain of the cheerleading squad; and plans on going to Columbia University with her boyfriend. Aidan is voted Most Likely to Succeed but Kaye is voted half of the high school’s Perfect Couple—with Sawyer, the school mascot and resident bad boy. … Echols seamlessly tells this story of how two people come to fall in love, while including themes of bullying, interracial relationships, class, and family strife. The overall pace, plotting, and character development are even, and the narrative frankly touches upon sex and consent.” — School Library Journal

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz (Scholastic)

“An Iranian-American teen’s faith in his beloved brother is pushed to the limit when it appears that he may be involved in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. High school senior Kamran and his parents are stunned when his brother, Darius, a U.S. Army Ranger, appears in a video following the embassy bombing, disheveled and rambling, claiming responsibility for the attack. The family’s descent into a constantly monitored nightmare of confusion is believably horrific. … Kamran is a smart and sympathetic narrator, and readers will be happy to spend time with him in this action-packed thriller.” — Kirkus

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)

“After the death of the highly placed aristocrat whose patronage ensured their safety, Jessamy’s mixed-race family is targeted by political enemies; spared thanks to her skill at the game of Fives, she must find a way to save them. … Jes finds an outlet from suffocating social strictures by secretly training for the Fives, a complex, mysterious competition popular with both castes. … This series opener, the auspicious teen debut of a seasoned author of adult fantasy and World Fantasy Award finalist, features a gripping, original plot; vivid, complicated characters; and layered, convincingly detailed worldbuilding. A compelling look at racial and social identity wrapped in a page-turning adventure.” — Kirkus

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle (Atheneum)

“Reflecting on her childhood in Los Angeles and her Cuban heritage, Engle’s memoir in verse is, indeed, nothing short of enchanting. Descriptions of Cuba as a tropical paradise and the home of her beloved abuelita come alive in the spare free-verse poems. She evocatively addresses weighty issues, such as her mother’s homesickness, being bicultural, the challenge of moving homes and schools, the Cuban Revolution, and negotiating an identity that is being torn apart by politics and social attitudes at complete odds with her feelings and experiences.” — Booklist, starred review

Of Dreams and Rust by Sarah Fine (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

“A solid continuation of Fine’s Of Metal and Wishes (S. & S., 2014), a unique retelling of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. In the year after the slaughterhouse where she worked collapsed, Wen tries desperately to be content in the healing clinic with her father and taking care of the ”Ghost“ that formerly haunted the factory. However, after overhearing a secret plan, the teen must decide if she will risk everything to try to save those she believes are innocent or watch helplessly as war consumes all of her dreams. Fine excels at creating the frenzied chaotic landscape of a racially driven war-ravaged world. … Set in a dystopian landscape with a variety of diverse characters, this romantic steampunk novel will have readers often on the edge of their seats as they try to keep up with the heroine’s adventures.” — School Library Journal

Another Day by David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

“Waking up in a new body each day ain’t easy—neither is trying to keep track of the person who does. Readers first met A in Levithan’s ethereal 2013 novel, Every Day (2013). A is a being neither male nor female who wakes up inhabiting a different teenage body every morning. There’s no rhyme or reason for the bodies that A inhabits; they come in all sorts and sizes of teens—large, slight, Caucasian, Asian, athletic, popular, clinically depressed. All are of a similar age, and all tend to be within a certain geographical radius. Where the first novel was told from A’s perspective, this companion novel serves as the former’s mirror image, following the heroine of the first book, 16-year-old Rhiannon … A fast-paced, absorbing companion.” — Kirkus

The Temple of Doubt by Anne Boles Levy (Sky Pony Press)

“Living in Port Sapphire, on the island of New Meridian in the world of Kuldor, almost–16-year-old Hadara chafes under the tenets of a religion headed by the god Nihil that teaches that magic is superior to anything in nature. … When an object falls from the sky into the marsh, Azwans (mages of Nihil) and their oversized Feroxi guards arrive to investigate, complicating things for Hadara and her family, not least because Hadara begins to have feelings for one of the guards. … Levy shines brightest in her potent descriptions of settings and her imaginative scenes.” — Kirkus

Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano (Scholastic Press)

“Actress Manzano, best known as Maria from Sesame Street, provides a lyrical and unflinching account of her tough Nuyorican upbringing in the South Bronx. Split into three parts, this touching memoir is a chronological series of vignettes in the author’s life. … Life is full of tragedies and triumphs alike, and Manzano shows how both helped her become the actress that generations of children grew up seeing on Sesame Street. In stark and heartbreaking contrast to her Sesame Street character, Manzano paints a poignant, startlingly honest picture of her youth.” — Kirkus, starred review