Laura Lam – Pantomime

The year is coming to an end and I’m rushing to finish at least some of my reading challenges. Laura Lam’s debut novel was on several of my lists and while it was a quick enough read, I felt rather disappointed once I reached its end.

pantomimePANTOMIME
by Laura Lam

Published by: Strange Chemistry, 2013
Ebook: 320 pages
Series: Micah Grey #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: “They say magic left the world with the Chimaera and the Alder.”

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 Chimeras 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.

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This book has a huge problem right from the start. If you read the synopsis and have had even a glimpse of a review, you know that Micah Grey and Iphigenia Laurus are the same person. This is not a spoiler because – even without the prior knowledge – it takes about three pages to figure it out. The story, however, hinges on this secret as a creator of suspense. To say it simply: It doesn’t. Micah Grey has just joined the circus and is now training to be a trapeze artist with the beautiful Aenea and the seasoned Arik. Hiding that he is, in fact, not a boy could be so thrilling (just think of the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce) but the execution doesn’t let it get interesting. Micah has a lot of understandable angst but things go pretty smoothly. (NOTE: For the sake of readability, I call the protagonist Gene and use female pronouns in this review, although this naturally shifts in the book, depending on whether she is Gene or Micah at the moment.)

Iphigenia Laurus’ story is told in flashbacks. Frequent visits to medical professionals, discussions about her “condition”, her trying to hide her terrible secret and not quite fitting into the role her parents have planned for her – that’s Iphigenia’s, or Gene’s daily life. In these chapters, another tendency that bothered me came up. Gene doesn’t like being a girl and so hangs out a lot with her brother and his friends. She climbs trees, she secretly smokes with the boys, she doesn’t like wearing dresses.

So far, so fine. But in these flashback chapters, it became more and more disconcerting how negatively all things feminine were described. The short version is: girls get dolls and dresses, boys get books. Girls only care about their looks and finding a husband, boys get to do stuff, to be active. They climb trees, they go outside and play games, they are where all the fun is. As if a feminine girl couldn’t possibly be interested in outdoor activities, as if liking to dress up made you a superficial idiot. That’s the message I took away from these early chapters and it made me quite uncomfortable. In a book with an intersex protagonist, shouldn’t the author be more careful with the language she chooses to describe stereotypical “boy” and “girl” things? Shouldn’t this book also be the platform to discuss these stereotypes?

To be fair, the tone does get more neutral towards the end when Gene puts on a dress of her own volition and quite enjoys it. From Gene’s point of view, I totally get it. But the narration makes it sound like it’s a fact that girls are narrow-minded dolls and boys are interested in all things cool.

“Don’t call me Genie,” I said automatically, crossing into the room that was as masculine as it was possible for a room to be. The air smelled of musty books, the acrid tang of old smoke and the orange oil used to treat furniture. Everything was maroon, hunter green, and brown.”

Girls, on the other hand, get frilly pink dresses and discussions of upcoming balls. Going outside or playing a game would be unheard of…

We spent the afternoon being young noblewomen, dressing up and applying cosmetics, eating cakes and tea and discussing plans for the upcoming season. I made more of an effort this time than I usually did, trying to fit myself into the role of a girl to see if I could ever make it work, instead of convincing Anna to play board games or go for a carriage ride through the city.

I may read too much into this but having chapters with this mindset juxtaposed, it becomes blatantly obvious that, at the very least, Gene’s viewpoint on gender roles is limited. More interesting was, perhaps, her sexuality. Gene feels very insecure in her own skin and things only get worse when she finds herself attracted to aerialist Aenea. Is Gene a lesbian girl? A straight boy? And what about Drystan, the white clown with an air of mystery? Gene’s confusion was very well described, her jumbled feelings whenever Aenea or Drystan interact with her felt real. I found the actual romance bits (kisses, for one) to be described in a very bland way but that may just be me. I did totally love Drystan and he is the main reason I want to continue reading this series.

micah grey

All the gender discussion aside, the plot wasn’t great either. To me, it felt like this story should have started where the first novel ends. Perhaps I would feel differently had it been told in a more gripping manner. As mentioned before, hiding who you really are when you live in very close quarters with other people could be so very intriguing. How do you shower? When and where do you change clothes if nobody is allowed to see you naked? To make things worse, Gene has her first period in the circus and needs to deal with that monthly complication as well. But, while mentioned briefly, all these little things are dealt with pretty quickly and never come up again.

The same thing goes for the world building. There are hints of true potential, little tidbits that grab the reader’s attention, but – just like any other conflict – they are throwaway remarks. I assume (and hope) that the Penglass, the myth of the Kedi, the strange damselfly and all the other little things are explored in the next book. Their brief appearences in Pantomime, however, didn’t serve the plot at all. They were clearly breadcrumbs left there for the next book. No conclusions are reached, no riddles solved, no revelations made.

The ending bothered me even more. Just as real conflict comes up, just as Gene is in real danger and her secret might be revealed to the world, things just fall into place. There is a fair bit of action involved and I was honestly surprised at how dark the story suddenly got. It was a well-written ending but not a well-plotted one. Because, to me, Gene ends up just where she was at the beginning of the novel. She didn’t grow, she made some friends, she is now a trapeze artist, but other than that it’s “welcome square one, nice to see you again.” It was a deeply unsatisfying ending, to say the least, because the proper story hasn’t even started yet, everything that was built up in this book is left behind, and I have to ask myself: Why write this book at all, then? Why not start with the real story and throw the events of Pantomime in as flashbacks?

The book does have redeeming qualities and certain aspects of the story totally hooked me. I am almost certain that Shadowplay, the second in the series, will be a better book in every single way. I’m just not in a particular hurry to read it. Maybe in a year or two… for Drystan’s sake.

RATING: 6/10  –  Okay

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