Author: Laura Lam
Genre: YA, fantasy/high fantasy, magical realism, historical fiction, coming of age, gender issues, tough stuff, AWESOME
Publication Date: February 5, 2013 (Strange Chemistry/Angry Robot – North America)
Source: NetGalley Review Copy
Summary: 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 Chimaera 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.
☆: 5/5 stars – a stunning debut that you just can’t miss!
Review: Where do I start? Let me just say that I have a huge, unwavering respect for Laura Lam for doing what she did in her debut – she took a huge risk, pulled it off, and I’m still more than slightly in awe of the process in which she used to do so. To be honest, YA needs more writers like her, regardless of genre. “Pantomime” was absolutely stunning from start to finish, and will make you want to move to Ellada by the end of the book. If you want something deliciously new and thrilling and absolutely magical, “Pantomime” is definitely your book. Note that this review may have some spoilers in it, so you’ve been warned. Also, I use certain pronouns in this review, so if you get confused, please go here for further information.
So, I guess I should start with the thing I liked the most: our main character: Gene/Micah. Lam took a huge risk with making her character intersex (not transgender, but someone actually born with both sets of bits)/genderqueer/genderfluid – also known as non-binary gendered, and going with that as a big part of hir (accepted pronoun for someone intersex or in the midst of transition when transgendered) major journey/transition arc. Because this isn’t just Gene/Micah’s story, it’s also the story of the Ragona Circus, and everyone within it – though maybe I’d say it’s split pretty evenly in terms of whose story it is. It’s also the story of the Alders, a lost people with lost artefacts called Vestige, but I have a feeling we’ll get to see more of that in book two (since Lam did confirm over twitter there would be a book two, so yay!). Gene/Micah hurts so very much, but ze (also accepted pronoun for someone of intersex/trans origin) has so much going for hir and Lam does the most courageous thing – not couching it in a contemporary story of bullying or suicide, but instead crafts it into a fantasy tale of wonder and triumph. Lam makes it not just about Gene/Micah, but about a possibly mythical Alder being called the Kedi, someone exactly like Gene/Micah who was worshipped as a demi-god. If that isn’t ultimate empowerment to the transgender/intersex/genderqueer community, I don’t know what is. But all I know is that I liked it, and I definitely want more. Gene/Micah is incredibly hard-working, sassy, but also humble when ze needs to be. Ze knows who ze wants to be and runs with it, knowing that ultimately, it’s something that may lose hir hir family and friends forever.
As someone who has a certain degree of gender dysphoria (specifically, genderfluidity issues but not enough for me to wish to change the plumbing, if you know what I mean), I can’t tell you what this book means to me. I was getting so very very sick of those YA “tough stuff” issue novels that had the MC depressed or suicidal or bullied because of their gender issues, and I wanted to see an MC that could be happy with themselves (or rather, comfortable in their own skin) even with gender issues. While “Pantomime” does not make the journey to this contentedness with self easy (oh no, not at all), it was still refreshing to see someone of genderfluid/genderqueer/etc origins finally get to that sense of being okay with hirself in the end. Or at least, more comfortable and okay with hirself compared to the start of the book.Or at least, more comfortable and okay with hirself compared to the start of the book. So this book? It means a lot. It feels like a triumph, and it makes me feel a little bit okay about myself. So I have to thank Lam for this book on those grounds alone. So this book? It means a lot. It feels like a triumph, and it makes me feel a little bit okay about myself. So I have to thank Lam for this book on those grounds alone.
Out of the gender arena, I have to say: the worldbuilding, the characters, the sensory imagery? Those are more or less flawless so I won’t be talking about those too much. Seriously. Even for the ARC version I read? It was dangerously close to flawless and that’s always a good thing. I’ll just say this about the world: combine a somewhat familiar world we already know, plus huge high-fantasy-heavy remnants of a previous civilization plus Victorian/Edwardian-era societal norms? That’s what Ellada is. And it’s glorious.
Let’s talk about the romance: there are several instances of romances/crushes/etc in this book with both genders, to varying degrees going from crush to actual romance/love. I like how vividly and honestly Lam portrays Gene’s (and later Micah’s) encounters – being blunt and saying which is a crush, and which isn’t, and that was nice. As for the semi-love triangle? Because it plugged in so deeply to Gene/Micah’s issues, I can forgive it. Because it literally meant, in some areas, having to choose a gender. And while I can’t claim to know what that feels like (not in the least), I do know the stress of having to hide that secret of identity (be it sexual choice or just gender-based) from someone. And it really made me feel for Gene/Micah. I really hope Lam continues to explore this more in book two, but for book one, it was pretty powerful stuff.
One last thing – semi-retellings. There’s heavy high-fantasy genre elements in this book, as I’ve mentioned before, but it also mixes original mythology on Lam’s behalf with Greek mythology – specifically, Styx (the river) but retold as more of a hell-sort of place, or so it’s implied (since it’s used as a swear word). I really loved the mythology in this book along with the religious elements Lam constructed, and it really made the world all the more richer.
Final verdict? Even if you’re not really sure about where you stand on transgender/intersex/genderqueer issues, you really, really, really need to read this book. Much like David Levithan’s “Every Day”, this book addresses a lot of those trans issues, and in a very clear way. Definitely with a bullet at number one at my favorite for 2013 so far, “Pantomime” is out now from Strange Chemistry in both the UK and in North America, so be sure to check it out when you can. And look forward to an interview with Lam on the blog about the construction of “Pantomime” very soon!