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.
Pantomime is the debut novel from Laura Lam and I will say up front that this is a special book, one that I would encourage people of all ages to read. My review is going to contain a slight spoiler, but the element of the story that I will be spoiling is something that is revealed quite early on, and I think it is necessary for me to spoil it to describe why this is such a special book (there are plenty of other reviews out there that don't spoil this big twist, but these reviews tend to focus how the reviewer really wants to tell you the twist but they just can't).
Pantomime tells the story of Micah Grey, a young boy who runs away from home and joins the circus. It is a rough initiation for him, the other performers don't much like him, and the especially don't like how his mere presence is cutting in to their wages. But Micah has a talent for dangerous tricks at remarkable heights that the circus just cannot refuse. On the alternating chapter, Pantomime tells the story of Iphigenia Laurus, the tom-boy daughter of a noble family who is known to her friends as Gene and who is being forced by her parents to become someone that she clearly isn't. And now for the ***SPOILER*** - Iphigenia Laurus and Micah Grey are the same person, with Gene having been born a hermaphrodite. Yep, that's some pretty deep stuff for a YA book to deal with, but Pantomime deals with it perfectly to create something that is important, poignant, and relevant.
The story here is slow and deliberate, one that explores many of the issues faced by teenagers and young adults today. At times it can be too slow and there isn't a great deal of action, but that didn't bother me too much. Pantomime is, at its core, a story about identity and acceptance, and from there it explores some more complex themes. Gene, who looks like a girl and has been raised as a girl doesn't feel anything like a girl, and doesn't have any of the impulses or tendencies that she is told a girl is supposed to have. Her first romantic encounter with a handsy boy sees her secret discovered for the first time outside of her family, and the open revulsion that boy displays hits right to the core, making her question just what sort of monster she could possibly be, and who could ever fall in love with a monster like her. As Micah in the circus, she becomes intensely attracted to one of the female performers and is then forced to confront the issue of her sexuality. Oh, and while this is all happening, she is going through a very complex puberty where she has to deal with the worst parts of puberty from both sexes. It is a very confusing time for her, she is being forced to deal with it alone, and I cant help but wonder just how many other teenagers and young adults are being forced to confront similar complex issues with a similar level of support.
Outside of the exploration of theme, Pantomime is set in a wonderfully vivid secondary world that seems to have a subtle steampunk influence, and that has a latent magic which crops up every now and then throughout the story. Lam has obviously gone to a lot of effort in constructing this world, and I hope she decides to explore it a bit more outside of the Micah Grey series because I think it's an awesome world that needs further exploration.
Pantomime is a remarkable debut novel, one of the best debut novels I have read, and one that I hope leaves its mark on the fantasy genre as a whole. Lam has taken a bit of a risk by dealing with themes that make people uncomfortable, but by doing this I think she shows that fantasy is still one of the best genres for providing social commentary on the world we live in. This is an easy recommendation from me - Pantomime is a book you really should read.
Review by Ryan Lawler
9/10 from 1 reviews
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