Thursday 4 July 2013

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Review: Pantomime by Laura Lam

Pantomime by Laura LamPantomime by Laura Lam (ARC) - WARNING! This review of Pantomime contains major spoilers. Read no further if you're planning on reading this book and don't want it spoilt for you. Instead, read my spoiler-free review.

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.

Back in October 2012, I wrote a mini-esque review of Pantomime, one that was completely spoiler free so I could tell you all how amazing this book is. Well, Pantomime has now been published for five months, and the big secret is out; Pantomime is all about an intersex teen, and so works perfectly for LGBTQ YA Month. Just so you are aware, if you have read my spoiler-free review, there are some paragraphs from that review have been edited for this review, to save repeating myself, but there is number of new things discussed, too.

Pantomime is absolutely amazing! It's a fantastic character driven fantasy, that will draw you in from the very first page and have you caring deeply about its brilliant main character, Gene/Micah. Gene, an intersex teenager raised as female, is the daughter of a noble family; she's expected to go to balls and wear beautiful dresses, to enjoy embroidery and high tea, but she doesn't. She would much rather be spending her time with her older brother Cyril and his friends, climbing trees, living life a little more rough and tumble than is expected of a young female noble. Micah is the male identity Gene takes on when he runs away from home. He joins the circus in order to find his own way in life, where, as an aerialist, he is able to feel more like himself, jumping and swinging 60 feet above ground.

But taking on the life of a male, when not only is he being searched for by the Policiers and so has to lie about his background to the people he works with, but his shape is changing too, is not so easy. Micah is very tall and has a more masculine jaw than a female one, but he starts to develop breasts, and his waist starts to narrow slightly. As Gene, her face is a little masculine, but as Micah, he is a pretty looking boy. Late puberty is bringing all sorts of changes to Micah's body, and he has to be more careful to hide his intersexuality.

It would be easy to think that Micah, the person inside the body, identifies more as male than female, but that's not exactly right. His personality traits and the things he enjoys doing seem to be stereotypical traits, but there are dresses that he likes, and he also has a love of music and dancing, and by dancing, I'm talking the kind of dancing you would see in Pride and Prejudice. As Gene says, "...I do not feel like a girl. Or a boy." (p213) Micah just feels like him.

Micah also questions his sexuality, but not exactly in the way you would think; he's not wondering if he's gay or straight, but what he would be regarding his gender. Within the world of pantomime, there are no such terms as "gay" or "straight", "homosexual" or "heterosexual", it's simply that some men like men, some women like women, and it's left without a label. So when Micah finds himself attracted to a girl, his question is "Did I like her as a boy, or as a girl?" (p120) It all goes back to Micah's search for self-identity. But Pantomime has more to say on sexuality. Drystan, one of the circus clowns, says in response to Micah's question about what the Lord of the Sun and the Lady of the Moon, their deities, think of homosexuality, says:
"'They're completely silent on the subject. In none of the sacred writings is there a hint that it even exists. Some say that means they consider it so terrible that it cannot even be spoken of. Others feel it means that it is a non-issue, that the Lord and Lady do not care, as long as those who love each other come together to be complete and to worship them. In ancient Alder, there were no different pronouns for gender. I think that in itself speaks volumes.'" (p121)
Pantomime is very much about being true to yourself, and working out just exactly who that is. It's about fighting against being pigeon-holed - especially when you, a square peg, are being forced into a round hole. I also think "Pantomime" is such a fantastic title as speaks more to the heart of Micah's story, he is constantly acting, whether it be playing a girl as Gene, or playing a boy as Micah. I think it was a stroke of genius on Lam's part to have Micah, as a boy at the circus, taking part in the circus' pantomime by playing a female character. Although he's playing an actual part in a play, through it, both sides of him are have been seen by those he works with.

Micah is unlike any other character I've read before. What's great about this book is that it jumps back and forth between the seasons of Spring and Summer; Spring when Gene plays female, and Summer where Micah plays male, so you get to see both sides of this character. You can't help but fall in love with each side of Micah, and want so badly for him to be accepted for who he is, rather than being made to do what is expected of him as a noble's daughter. Gene's father had the right idea when speaking to her mother:
"'Perhaps things are already right. Perhaps Iphigenia is meant to be masculine rather than feminine, or somewhere in the middle... You're so quick to see the worst in everything. This is how Iphigenia was made. I believe it is the will of the couple.'" (p201-202)
If only everyone else thought like that. Your heart really does go out to Micah; there are moments where I was so disturbed by the way he was treated, and moments when my heart just broke over the crappy choices he had in front of him. This is a character with a terribly hard life; a life where only more difficulty lies ahead.

And now to discuss the genre of Pantomime. When I asked her on Twitter about the genre of Pantomime, Lam said, "I've been calling it gaslight fantasy, since it's sort of steampunk without the steam." I'm going to describe the genre based on my experience of reading fantasy. I haven't read any steampunk, it's definitely not dystopia or urban fantasy, so for me, that leaves high fantasy. Except, it only just fits into my idea of high fantasy; an imagined world that feels historical, with magical people and creatures. This Pantomime has - the very different way of living, the magic in the chimaera and the Alders - but it doesn't have so much of the politics or any of the epic battles that most high fantasies I've read I have, or at least not in this book. But the fantasy elements of the story - the magic, the chimaera and the Alders - are not a massive part of this story. Pantomime is very much about Micah's life, and so feels more like a historical about a historical intersex teen, though I have a feeling that the fantasy elements will play a much bigger part in future books.

This means the questions you have relating to Micah and the fantasy elements aren't all answered. In any other book, this would be quite frustrating, but I'm so invested in Micah's life, in the person he is, that I almost don't care that I have unanswered questions, because Micah - who has found a permanent home in my heart - is much more important than the questions I have.

Pantomime is not only an amazing story, but an important one. You're not wowed because of the world building, the mythology behind the chimaera and the Alders, or the cliff-hanger ending - which are all incredible - but by the truly beautiful, enthralling person we find in Micah. His is a story that needs to be told, and one that everyone should read. A completely eye-opening, enthralling debut. I can't thank Lam enough for writing it, and applaud her massively; she's taken a very serious subject, and treated it with such sensitivity to create such a captivating story. Another book to add to the favourites list.

Thank you to Strange Chemistry for the ARC.

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Published: 7th February 2013
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Buy on Amazon US
Laura Lam's Website


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