Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Pantomime by Laura Lam

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.

Yes, I know this book came out last winter and I’m a little late to the party. And that’s why in this review I won’t talk about how it has an intersex main character and it deals with LGBT themes in a YA fantasy. Most people know that already.

(And anyway, LGBT themes should not be the sole focal point. No one thinks it’s exceptional when YA fantasy has a straight girl as a hero, do they? So straight girl stories are just stories, and LGBT hero/ine stories are LGBT stories? Like the hero/ine’s only defining characteristic is that s/he is attracted to the same gender? Blergh.)

From the first pages Pantomime struck me as a truly unusual book. The story starts when the main character, “Micah”, joins the circus; after that, the narrative splits into the “before” and the “after”, with entire chapters of flashbacks. Normally this would bug me, but the two voices and narratives are so compelling that I wanted to know about both of them—and how Iphigenia (or Gene) got to that point.

The 'verse is quite well constructed. There are names and concepts from our world and familiar mythologies sprinkled throughout, but they feel less like borrowed elements than teasers (anyone else detect certain subtle parallels between Ellada and our world? Vestige?)The ambiance verges on steampunk, but doesn’t overdo with the flashy shiny decorations (which I, being practically a steampunk virgin, appreciated.)

Only about halfway through I managed to pin down what stands out about this book. I never once got that feeling I get sometimes when I read YA. You know the one. Like someone sat down and said, “Ooh, YA [insert genre here] is hot right now, I’ll write one and it’ll be the next big thing!” And then out comes the checklist: "plain" heroine who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful, a romance with a conventional hottie… or better yet, a love triangle with two conventional hotties, high school drama, mean cheerleaders, dress lavishly in genre elements, sprinkle a hint of plot on top, and voila. Next Big Thing!

Pantomime isn’t trying to be the next big thing. It’s not trying to be anything. Laura Lam thought of a strange, fantastical story and wrote it down with little regard for the genre’s go-to tropes. That’s what makes Pantomime a unique creation.

What I liked less:

Like a lot of epic fantasy, Pantomime was slow to start. 35% in and only then I got a feeling of bigger things being set in motion. Good thing Micah/Gene was such a fascinating character that I never even thought of quitting. So be aware that this one is a slow, atmospheric read. It’s not your typical easy fantasy with rebellious princesses and swashbuckling heroes, and it’s definitely worth the effort.

Four and a half stars.  

Oh, and the sequel comes out this January. 


  1. I've never even heard of this one. That's one of the reasons why I like when people review books from months or even years ago. It's inevitable that books will fall through the cracks of our TBR list.

    I'm glad the author told the story she wanted to and didn't care about trends.

    1. Oh yes, I was surprised how underrated this book seems to be. It should be all over the place. That good.

  2. This book has been on my radar because I've been looking for YA books about the circus. like how it's not like the usual "check list" YA so I'm moving this one up on my TBR list.

    1. Hahaha I knew I couldn't be the only one! Really, it's a great book, and definitely should be moved up on the TBR list :)