I have heard nothing but good things about Pantomime by Laura Lam, and the book earned every good word I heard about it. Pantomime tells the story of Micah Grey, who was once Iphigenia Laurus: an intersex teenager raised as a girl who runs away to the circus when her parents decide to surgically alter her to make her ‘marriageable’ against her will. Once on the run, Iphigenia takes the name Micah, passes herself off as a boy, and joins a circus. At the circus, Micah begins training as a replacement for the circus’ aging male acrobat.
Micah’s voice is beautifully written. Lam captures the confusion of adolescence, the way Micah’s gender and biological sex adds to that confusion and isolation, and the anger Micah feels when he realizes that being intersex shouldn’t isolate him from those around him but does. At the same time, Micah begins a relationship with female his acrobat partner, Aenea, while nursing a crush on the White Clown of the circus, Drystan. Micah’s burgeoning bisexuality provides another welcome thread of the book, which Lam handles with sensitivity and grace.
The circus itself is presented as a microcosm, a little world unto itself, full of history that Micah has to learn, and full of possible dangers as well as new experiences to explore. Micah endures hazing. Micah learns who in the circus to watch out for and who is safe. Meanwhile, news that Iphigenia Laurus has run away spreads through town. Some in the circus put the pieces together; some do not. Micah must learn who he can trust and who he cannot. Some learn his secrets, and he learns theirs. The theme of secrets—the power they hold, the destructive force they ultimately represent—is a present all throughout the book. That theme comes to a devastating, heart-wrenching set of climaxes at the end of the book.
Pantomime is fits squarely in the genre of fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and doled out in enough small doses to stay interesting without ever being overwhelming. Each chapters starts with an epigraph from some fictional work which provides some context about the Archipelago, the region in which Pantomime takes place. Micah’s past as Iphigenia gives him an education on Ellada’s (his country) history and political relationship with its outlying colonies. Slowly, Vestige is introduced—magical artifacts from some time long past which work sporadically. The circus uses them for entertainment value, but Ellada once used them as weaponry. Micah, for as yet unknown reasons, has a strange and powerful relationship with the remnants of the culture that produced the Vestige artifacts.
Honestly, if there’s anything to critique about Pantomime, perhaps, it’s that last point—by the end of the book, it’s increasingly clear that Micah is, in some mysterious way, special, and that this specialness is tied to his being intersex. This, I’m sure will get extrapolated in the book’s sequels, but I can’t help but think that the book would have been stronger, and would have made more of a positive statement about intersexuality, gender fluidity and bisexuality if Micah had just been…Micah. Not chosen, not magical, just Micah—an acrobat who is complicated and trying to grow up in a complicated world. But all that said, the book was still lovely, and I am very curious about the Penglass, so I’m already halfway through Shadowplay.