It feels like so long since I’ve written one of these, I’ve forgotten how it’s done. Still, never mind. Let’s get to it.
Date started: March 9th
Date finished: March 17th
Pantomime is the debut novel by Laura Lam, released by Strange Chemistry, the Young Adult arm of everyone’s favourite pissed off cyborg (Hint: it’s Angry Robot). It’s the story of Iphigenia ‘Gene’ Laurus, a young noble girl who hates the lifestyle that’s been foisted upon her, much preferring to climb trees with her brother and his friends than drink tea at debutante balls. It’s also the story of Micah Grey, a runaway boy who joins R.H Ragona’s Circus of Magic, the greatest circus in all of Ellada (supposedly).
Look, I’m going to drop a slight spoiler here. It’s something that’s fairly well known anyway, and occurs quite early on in the book, but there’s your fair warning. Micah and Gene are the same person. Gene was born with both sets of sexual organs, making him/her intersex, or polygender. This is also where I make my apologies to any of my transgender friends who may be reading. My vocabulary is sadly inadequate on this front, and any mistakes or taboos are unintentional.
Anyway, I like reading YA every so often because it’s a reminder of why I got into reading in the first place. YA books tend to worry less about constraining their plots and ideas, and I often find they are more willing to go outside the box as it were. Having recently grown bored of the white male twenty something protagonists (admittedly less of a problem in books than other mediums) it was refreshing to read a character who straddles the gender binary, complete with all the issues and insecurities this would bring.
Fortunately, Laura Lam manages to nail this characterisation. It would have been very easy to make Micah’s gender confusion the only part of his character, but he’s also headstrong and likable. In short, he’s fun to read, and carries himself with confidence. He knows what he wants from life, and despite some setbacks, works to achieve it. It’s this confidence that I found inspiring as a reader, especially when it would have been so easy to write Micah as a quiet victim.
This strong characterisation carries over to everyone else. Rather than falling on various stereotypes (the depressed clown etc) Lam gives every character in and out of the circus a strong voice, and motivations that drive them. My personal favourite was Drystan, the lead clown with a mysterious past. We’re given enough hints to piece together some image of who he is/was, and it’s enough to tantalise and tease while not giving away everything so early in the game.
This rich storytelling manages to show itself in the world as well. Ellada is a place with huge scope and history, that we barely scratch the surface of in Pantomime. There’s a lot more just waiting to be told, and without giving the game away, Micah is likely the key to that discovery. There’s hints of untold magic, strange artifacts from extinct races, and even strange ghosts. It’s a world built on existing fantasy tropes, but ultimately comes across as anything but generic.
On top of all this, the plot rattles along at a consistent pace, switching between the lives of Iphigenia before running away and Micah after joining the circus. Revelations are unfolded and answers are given, and it all rockets towards an exciting conclusion that has me on edge waiting for another book continuing the stories of these characters and this world. Not to rush art, but if the sequel came out tomorrow, it wouldn’t be soon enough.
Pantomime is a wonderful story populated with interesting characters, not the least of which is Gene/Micah, her/himself. Anyone worried about not being able to empathise with an intersex protagonist need not worry. He’s well written and likable, and the issues of worrying whether or not we belong, or trying to find a place in society are problems we can all relate to regardless of things like gender.