Pantomime (2013): Laura Lam

★★★ ½

Micah Grey: Book I

I can’t quite remember how this book ended up on my Kindle, but I suspect it was another Goodreads recommendation. I’ve always enjoyed novels about theatre and performance, and this one promised something along the lines of The Night Circus: blending the sleight-of-hand of the circus with a more mysterious, elemental kind of magic. I freely confess that the ‘young adult’ designation put me off reading it for some time: nothing but a silly prejudice of mine; and one that I regretted as I was drawn into the story.

I wonder in fact why it needs to be tagged with the ‘young adult’ label at all. Lam develops her traditional coming-of-age fare into a sleek gender-bending fantasy thriller, set in a world tinted with Victoriana and spiced with a steampunk mechanical edge which frequently reminded me of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Light and of modest length, it proved to be perfect travel reading on the way home from a business trip. Before I start, I will say that there are spoilers ahead and it’s not really possible to avoid them, so if you prefer not to be spoiled, tread carefully.

The teenage runaway Micah Grey is skulking outside R.H. Ragona’s circus, long after the end of the show, when he’s discovered and hauled in front of the ringmaster and assembled company. When challenged with a sneer to show off his skills, Micah knows exactly what he can do to impress. Displaying his head for heights and dexterity at climbing, he succeeds in prompting a grudging offer: a new start with the circus, and a chance to train as an aerialist. Over the coming months, he is licked into shape by the two existing aerialists – gruff Arik and beautiful, captivating Aenea, who becomes the object of his shy adoration. As he builds his natural affinity for the trapeze and tightrope, he strives to fit into this eccentric, touchy group of people, who have closed ranks against the world outside the circus, which has only ever regarded them as freaks and outcasts. And that’s a situation with which Micah can sympathise. He, too, has spent his whole life failing to meet up to the world’s expectations.

The first problem (this is where the spoilers start) is that Micah isn’t a penniless street rat but the scion of one of the wealthiest families in this city of Ellada. Used to moving among the social elite, he has been blessed with a good education, fine clothes and a comfortable – albeit increasingly confusing – life. That confusion is founded in Micah’s second secret: he is not, strictly speaking, a boy. Raised as Iphigenia Laurus, the daughter of a distinguished family, he has just been presented in polite society as a debutante, and the prospect of a ‘suitable’ marriage is already looming on the horizon.

But there’s the issue. Technically he’s not quite a girl either. And his desperate flight from home is not some rich-kid attempt at slumming it, but a response to two shattering discoveries. First, his lifelong round of doctors’ appointments is to be crowned by an imminent visit to a surgeon, who plans to ‘cure’ his ‘disability’ by the knife. Secondly, the people he’s always believed to be his parents are in fact merely his guardians, given custody of him when he was a baby. In the face of this attempt by his elders to impose a life for which Micah feels increasingly unsuited, he panics, and runs. The circus offers him a chance to take stock: to slowly explore who and what he is, and to understand the conflicting emotions running through him: raised to be female, with a mind that is increasingly more male, and yet in a body that sits uncomfortably somewhere between the two. But the problem with having formerly been Iphigenia Laurus is that it isn’t easy simply to disappear. People are out on his trail, and Micah is rapidly learning that he can’t just step out of one life and into another.

I wasn’t expecting such a sensitive approach to gender and sexuality in a ‘young adult’ book, though I thought it was very slightly undermined partway through the story. Having been impressed by the unusual decision to have an intersex hero, I was then slightly disappointed when Micah’s hermaphroditism is explained, or excused, by an apparently mythological pedigree (no doubt this will all become clearer further down the line). However, that doesn’t take away from the care and openness with which his adolescent confusion is represented. Indeed, if The Night Circus casts a long shadow over Pantomime, so too does Jeffrey Eugenides’s moving and brilliant novel Middlesex. And, like that book, Pantomime is a story where a first-person narration is absolutely perfect: we get to know Micah as a person without it really mattering whether he’s male or female or neither or both, and I enjoyed the twist on the usual adolescent self-fashioning.

Naturally, as the novel concluded on something of a cliffhanger, I’m keen to find out what happens next. As luck would have it, the second novel Shadowplay is already out. Hopefully this sequel will tell us a bit more about Micah’s world, deepen the characters further, and throw a more light on the otherworldly elements – such as the mysterious Kedi, with whom Micah increasingly seems to be connected; and the mysteries of Penglass, the ancient relics which glow beneath his touch (and which unavoidably remind me of the Elderglass in The Lies of Locke Lamora). I’m just hoping that it manages to keep its current tone and doesn’t turn into a generic Heir-to-Ancient-Magics-Battles-The-Dark-Lord sort of thing. We shall see…

All in all, it’s certainly something to look out for if you fancy a light but engaging steampunk-style fantasy. There’s much promise here and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the story tightens and grows richer and more complex in the later books (I believe this is the first of a trilogy). It has also been a welcome wake-up call to the fact that I had a rather snobbish attitude to young adult fiction. I’d be interested to know about other books which you might have encountered, packaged as ‘young adult’, which work just as well for a broader readership. (Just as long as there aren’t any sparkly vampires in them.)

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4 thoughts on “Pantomime (2013): Laura Lam

  1. Heloise says:

    Since commenting works again today (maybe it somehow is dependant on the weather?), let me confess that I totally share your snobbery towards “Young Adult” (I even cannot stand the term and never use it other than in quotation marks), and I'd even go so far as to say that this snobbery is totally justified because most of what is released under that label is a pathetic attempt at dumbing down literature not just in its content but even worse intellectually and linguistically; and I remain convinced that most YA is not read by teenagers at all (who probably know better) but by presumed adults who find “normal” books too challenging.

    Having said that, there is the occasional exception, and this one certainly does look interesting – but for whatever reason is not available as an ebook in Germany, so I'll likely end up passing on it. Since I'm here, I wouldn't want to leave again without recommending Frances Hardinge to you – who does not really YA but children's books but whose Fly by Night I found utterly delightful and strongly suspect you might find very enjoyable, too.

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