Micah Grey runs away and joins the circus. It’s a common enough idea in literature. There is something magical about circuses, which function as heterotpias in which misfits and outcasts find a place where the rest of society can tolerate or ignore them as long as they offer entertainment value. What makes Pantomime different from the run-of-the-mill circus novel is its setting. Ellada is a country in a different world with a society relatively similar to mid-nineteenth-century England. Its power and political influence over colonies or former colonies wanes as the power in its Vestige weapons, remnants from the extinct Alder people, depletes. Real magic seems to have departed from Ellada along with the Alders, and only little scraps of marvellous Vestige, along with the mysterious Penglass domes, remind people that the fantastic used to exist.
That, and the circus, of course.
I had the good fortune to attend a pantomime during my time in England. Pantomime is an appropriate title for this book, and not just because the circus performers put on a panto at the end in which Micah nearly gives away his secret. The panto itself isn’t that important, though it certainly fits with the tone and texture of the story. No, the title works because of the overall narrative that Laura Lam has crafted and the way she presents it. Micah, who was once Gene, who is actually Iphigenia, is a complex tangle of identities and disguises that certainly don’t help sort out the issue of who Micah is. Like a pantomime, there are the obvious villains—Bil, the Shadow—and the more sympathetic antagonists—Micah’s parents—along with allies and fellow protagonists like Aenea and Drystan.
The only difference from an actual pantomime might be that this book doesn’t have a happy ending and a marriage. In fact, after teasing us with dramatic shifts in tone throughout the book, Lam has things take a decided turn for the worse during an emotional, devastating climax that leaves Micah as a fugitive in an unfamiliar city with only one of the other circus performers as a companion.
I really enjoyed Lam’s depiction of Ellada and the way she teases out the mysteries of Vestige and Penglass. She does a good job of sketching out the broad strokes of Elladan society without too much exposition. Elladan society—or at least, nobility—is highly gendered, which offers a useful juxtaposition for Micah as an intersex person. Micah’s parents’ betrayal and decision to surgically alter Micah is a painful but all-too-predictable response to Micah’s non-binary sexual nature.
But Micah’s experience in the circus belies its potential as a safe space. It’s just as rough and dangerous as the outside world, especially when managed by the abusive Bil. At times Lam is a little too circumspect—she telegraphs Micah’s intersexuality obviously enough but only tiptoes around the edges of Bil’s domestic abuse until, suddenly, it becomes a huge deal in the climax.
And about that climax, with its non-resolution and the cliffhanger ending. Pantomime resembles The Assassin’s Curse in this respect; it seems like it is one book split in two rather than a solid, standalone story. I don’t mind when the first book in a series leaves a hook for a continuing adventure, but not to offer any resolution at all leaves me wanting more closure.
This disappointment doesn’t negate the excitement I had while reading the rest of the book though. In addition to her interesting worldbuilding and good grasp of character, Lam knows how to pace her plot. I read this book during a school week, which sadly meant I had to work it in around things like, you know, real life. And I could tell how much I was enjoying the book by how much I itched to take out my tablet and read when I had other things to do. Micah and the circus sink their hooks into you and don’t let go.
Pantomime offers an interesting example of how the marketing decisions of a publisher play such a major role in the way a book is received. Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice has made huge waves and received a Hugo nomination, and the novel’s biggest talking point is how Leckie presents gender in it. In contrast, Pantomime’s inclusion of an intersex character and the struggle to find a place in a rigid class-based society are buried behind vague, bland cover copy that makes some people feeling like they are “spoiling” the book if they discuss this fairly essential feature without a thousand warnings and caveats beforehand. Now, Strange Chemistry is small potatoes compared to Orbit, and I’m not saying that Pantomime would ever have been playing at the same level as Ancillary Justice. But this novel arguably presents more interesting and nuanced issues of gender and sexuality than the other, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been marketed in that way.
The adage is true: one can’t judge a book by its cover. There is nothing in Pantomime’s description or opening pages to suggest it is anything more than a bland romance about two people who find themselves joining a circus. But the story quickly blossoms into something much deeper and more enchanting, opening onto a wonderful new world of Lam’s creation. So far 2014 has been a good year for books for me, and the last few weeks in particular have been a good run. Pantomime is no exception: takes common tropes and ideas and blends them with an original, exciting world full of new characters to create a brilliant story.