The middle book of any trilogy has the hardest job to do: it has to complicate the overall narrative while still being its own book. Bad middle books feel like filler; hundreds of pages of marked time between two cliffhangers. Good middle books walk the fine line between staying true to the story you fell in love with in the first book and twisting it enough to keep you interested in reading the next installment.
Shadowplay, I am happy to say, is a good middle book. As the second book in Laura Lam’s Micah Grey series, Shadowplay opens after one crisis and ends with another, but the path between them never feels like filler.
The events at the end of Pantomime force Micah into hiding again, this time with Drystan at his side. Drystan calls in a life-debt from the disgraced magician Jasper Maske to secure a hiding place at the dusty Kymri Theater, and thus begins Micah’s second adventure. Again, Micah goes into hiding. Again, Micah takes on a false identity. But the difference in Shadowplay is that he does so in plain sight. And at night he has a place to return to where people know who he really is and accepts him for that. I loved that nuance.
One area ripe for exploration that was missed, though, was Micah’s new identity. In the city of Imachara, while outside on the street, Micah wears a small piece of Vestige which makes him appear to be Temnian. In the book, Temnian people are coded as people of color; visibly foreign and visible different—“from the colonies,” mistrusted. As Sam (Micah’s name when passing as Temnian), Micah should face structural oppression. Unless Ellada is much further along in terms of race relations than we are in the real world, this should probably have been more than a couple of scowls on the street as mentioned in the text. This oversight is compounded when Cyan, an actual Temnian girl, joins the group. She either never speaks of whatever structural oppression she faces or she never experiences any. She seems to have no feelings on the matter that these two White kids are passing themselves off as Temnian. I’m not saying she should be bothered by it, necessarily, but she probably should have had an opinion on it one way or the other. In any case, there is a potential for this element of the book to rub readers of color the wrong way since Micah is literally using race as a costume for large sections of the book without any substantial reflection of what that means.
That said, I did truly appreciate that in Shadowplay Lam began to unweave Micah’s intersexuality from his apparent special abilities around Vestige*—which become more pronounced in this book. We learn more about that in Shadowplay; the Phantom Damselfy herself becomes a prominent character with a name and a history and a future. We also learn that there are others with similar abilities in Micah’s world. It’s confirmed more than once over the course of the book that it may just be coincidence that Micah is intersex and has these abilities. Micah is allowed to be just Micah.
Shadowplay is excellently paced and explores a different part of Elladan culture than Pantomime—magic shows and seances. I, actually, am fascinated by the historical spiritualism movement and the practices of debunking seances, so this was an oddly perfect match for my interests. Between Micah’s Phantom Damselfly induced visions, magician training, and tracking down people who are tracking down him, there is plenty of plot to go around. There are double agents. There is a slow-burning, very sweet romance, but not before the trauma of the ending of the first book has to be dealt with and processed by both Micah and Drystan. There is the question of Micah’s weird abilities and the potential and the danger they pose. And there is a hell of an ending and the questions it raises
I cannot wait for Masquerade**.
* If Lam’s interactions on twitter are any indications, and I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be, she appears to be a lovely and reflective person.
**Also, I the behind-the-scenes story of the third Micah Grey book is a pleasure in and of itself.