Monday, 18 February 2013

Pantomime by Laura Lam

Pantomime by début novelist Laura Lam is an enchanting read. The main character is intersex, something I didn't realise until I started reading and initially I blamed my ignorance on not reading the blurb because historically Strange Chemistry blurbs have been terrible. However, as I have now discovered, this blurb wasn't terrible and did not spoil anything. Huzzah! (Well, it's not perfect, but it's a start.) In celebration of the first Strange Chemistry blurb I've read that hasn't given the entire plot away, I reproduce it for you here:
R.H. Ragona's Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
As I was saying, the main character is intersex, having some female and some male characteristics. She was raised as Gene, a noble woman-in-training, but never felt at home in the role of noble woman. Things come to a head and she runs away, changes her name to Micah Grey and joins the circus as a boy. The bulk of story is told through two time lines: one starting from Micah's first day in the circus and one chronicling Gene's life in the days before she runs away. I liked the way Micah's past was gradually revealed through Gene's story. Some aspects were hinted at in Micah's story before we read about them in Gene's and some we read about in Gene's timeline before seeing some of the ramifications in Micah's. I thought they played off each other well and I was almost disappointed when Gene's timeline ran out (as we always knew it had to).

I have to say, Lam's choice to write in first person was a good one. Micah/Gene refer to themselves in the gender-neutral "I" leaving all the gendered pronouns up to the other characters to utter. A neat solution. Of course, there are times when Micah questions whether he is doing or feeling something as a man or as a woman, and a lot of the story focusses on him finding out who he is as a person, but it works well.

Something Pantomime got me thinking about philosophically was the nature of secrets, especially damaging personal ones. Gene was brought up knowing very well that no one could ever find out "what" she was. Only a few close family members knew and both she and her parents knew there would be dire consequences if the wrong people found out. Micah has to hide the same secret as well as the secret of his origins. Mild spoilers follow in white. Skip to the next paragraph if you wish to avoid them. As Micah grows romantically close with one of his fellow performers, he is faced with the question of how to tell her and when. Of course he puts it off and as a reader it was obvious that there would be consequences to perpetuating the lie. However, as he was angsting about how to tell her and how she would take it, I couldn't help but think that his continuing to keep the secret was not his fault. It was inevitable that the love interest would be upset that he hadn't told her sooner, but how could he have? Experience and common sense strongly suggested that things would not go well for him if he did and I don't think it was wrong of him to keep it from her for as long as possible. End spoilers.

The other notable aspect of Pantomime was the worldbuilding. It was surprisingly extensive and well thought through for a YA book. A lot of it remained in the background, apart from things like the city Micah came from and the social hierarchy. It wasn't until I was further in that I realised that there was much more to the worldbuilding than evident on the surface of the story and I started hoping for a sequel so that it could all be fully explored. I also kind of wanted to see a map of the place, not because I was confused about where places were (there's not that much travelling) but because I was curious. Luckily when I got to the end it strongly suggested that there would in fact be a sequel (and a visit to the author's website confirmed my suspicions). It finished in a fairly self-contained way so that a sequel isn't necessary to enjoy the book, but Micah's story is also definitely not over.

Pantomime was a great read. I recommend it to all fans of non-standard YA books. I think readers of adult fantasy books will also enjoy it. It felt more like a "grown up" fantasy book than a YA book (not that there's anything anti-YA in it and, well, it is a coming-of-age story) and I think it could just as easily have been marketed to the adult fantasy market, despite the protagonist's age. (Of course, YA is probably a better marketing choice.) So if you're not usually into YA but like fantasy books and the idea of running away to join the circus interests you, I strongly urge you to give Pantomime a go. I await the eventual sequel with excitement.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: book 1 of ?, Micah Grey series
Format read: eARC on the iPad
Source: the publisher via NetGalley


  1. This sounds great, Tsana. I've seen the cover around but hadn't bothered to find out much about it. I just read a YA involving an intersex teen, Alex as Well, so I'd really like to give this a go, too.
    Great review :)

    1. It's definitely worth a read. It was very close to being a 5 star read for me. I'd wager it approaches the issues a bit differently than Alex As Well, thanks to the setting.