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Book Review: Pantomime by Laura Lam

“‘Nice try, love,’ she said, and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “It won’t be so terrible, just you wait and see.”

I hoped she was right.

And so I bathed and brushed and shaved and scented myself. All the while, I tried to stifle the feeling that it was like a holy animal from the rural parts of Byssia being pampered and perfumed before slaughter to the Chimaera demi-gods. I may have been feeling a little melodramatic.

Lia had laid all of my clothing on the bed and helped me into my petticoats and undershirt and slid the corset around my torso.

Lia grunted slightly as she pulled the stays. My ribs constricted and I clutched the bedpost.
I felt caged in a corset. The device did give me a bit of an illusion of a waist, I thought, looking at my body in the mirror of my dressing table. Lia slipped the dress over my head and it fell about me in a wave of blue fabric so pale it was almost white. I twisted my hips and the fabric settled into place and Lia fastened the dozens of tiny buttons on the back. The dress was lovely, with simply lines, the only decoration pink satin ribbons about the waist and the high neckline and the hem of the skirt. Mother and I had disagreed on every other dress I had tried on, but as soon as I had come out of the dressing room in the shop on Jade Street, we had both agreed it a success.

Lia plaited my hair into a crown about my head with more ribbon and tiny sprays of baby’s breath. She left little curls about my face and another at the nape of my neck. I sat patiently as she powdered and painted my face in such a way that it did not look as though I was wearing cosmetics at all, which I did not see the point in. I stepped into heeled pink dancing slippers. A little strand of pearls about the neck and elbow-length gloves and a feather fan completed the look.

All dolled up to look like a girl and the illusion was fairly convincing.”
RH Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest of circus of Ellada- if they do say so themselves. Wonders beyond the imagination, where anything is possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the Chimeras and Alders still exist, and where people can make a new life for themselves. Iphigenia (Gene) comes from a noble family, but doesn’t fit into the formal world of corsets and crinoline. Enter Micah Gray, joining the circus as an aerialist apprentice and rising star. However, when a secret in their blood could unlock mysteries of Ellada and a civilization long forgotten, choices must be made and relationships hang in the balance.

A wonderfully rich steampunk world, Pantomime gives us Gene and Micah, richly developed characters struggling to figure out who they are within a world that is losing its magic, and more and more are struggling.  Sixteen year old Iphigenia would much rather climb trees than have tea parties, and is certain that with her ‘condition’ she is unsuitable for the noble world of a lady at any rate. Micah, hiding from the authorities, joins the Circus of Magic and tries to learn his place in the world- and possibly falling in love along the way- before his past and present collide. Pantomime is a beautifully written tale about identity and gender, set against a world where illusion is everything and reality is malleable. Secondary characters take on lives on their own, and the world is remarkable:  the history is given through museums and tours that the characters take, rather than through dialog or narrative. For those looking for more of the circus aspect, pair with The Night Circus, while those looking for identity stories similar to those in Pantomime could try Luna by Julie Ann Peters or Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger.  5 out of 5 stars.  As of April 9, 2013, Goodreads has Pantomime listed at 4.06 stars.

I must be under a rock or something, because I didn’t hear of the ‘controversy’ of the official blurb for the book (for reference see first paragraph above). Evidently people were thinking they were being “tricked” into reading a book, and when they were given something different, they were upset. Um, yea. About that. You got a romance and love story, it just wasn’t what you were thinking. You were thinking that Gene and Micah were going to fall in love, yeah?

Told in alternating chapters readers get the story of Gene, chosen by zes noble parents to be raised as a girl, and Micah, a runaway who joins the circus to be trained as an aerialist.  Early on readers figure out that Gene and Micah are one and the same, and that Gene/Micah is an intersex character, which in Ellada is a Kedi, a long forgotten mythical being. Facing surgery to be totally female, ze runs away from everything, loses zirself in the circus, and tries to discover what it is ze really wants out of life, and what the secrets of the Vestige machinery hold for zir. 

Part of the problem is that Micah (as ze is called in the circus) falls in love with two very different people, and has to figure out what zir heart and body wants; unfortunately, ze is determined to keep zir secret from everyone, and that destroys one relationship.

The circus has its own intrigue, as well, and dangers always seem to lurk within from sources both inside and out. The ending seems shoved within the last few chapters of the book, and is at an extremely jarring pace compared to  the majority of the book. I know that while I was expecting something of that nature to happen, I wasn’t expecting that ending. It’s still wonderfully written, and that it is a fantasy with an intersex character is wonderful.

Pantomine is the first of the Micah Gray series.