author: Laura Lam
format: Kindle ARC
buy it: Amazon Goodreads B&N
rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].
recommended for: Fans of Tamora Pierce, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, and inventive high fantasy.
My Ratings Explained
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.
the basicsThis book thrilled and, most of all, surprised me. I went in expecting a fun carnival fantasy. I got that carnival fantasy, and I also got a strangely profound exploration of gender and sexual identity. Seriously, I usual complain that young adult books sacrifice story for meaning, and I can't say this about Pantomime. This book does have its low points. The split narrative is sometimes jarring. The big secret is dragged out long after the cat's out of the bag. And of course, some of the most fascinating elements--Penglass, Chimaera--are never dealt with fully and satisfyingly. However, the rest is a whimsical coming-of-age story with deep characters and a quick-moving plot. The world takes a twist on fantasy by embodying a magical world that's lost its magic. Then there's a slow-burning romance that manages to be both sweet and incredibly meaningful. Maybe the writing isn't as precise as I'd prefer, but kudos to Lam for stretching the limits of the genre and combining fun fantasy adventure with human interest.
plot . 4/5The cold start to Pantomime works pretty well. We see Micah trying to prove himself so the circus will take him in. We don't know why he's there, how he came there. The mystery of his past proves very central, so it's a clever move. Then we have the alternate story line of Gene, tomboy in a world of corsets and courtiers. The back-and-forth gets clumsy and sucks you out of the action sometimes, but Lam also takes more care than others to switch between scenes that have some common thread, that illuminate something about each other. There's a good mix of self-discovery, coming-of-age type moments, rambunctious circus-y fun, and darker moments of oppression and betrayal. I rarely felt bored, though I may have been frustrated when a huge climactic moment was suddenly cut-off for a scene change. Where it misstepped was in the underutilization of the magical elements. We get these mysteries about Chimaera and Penglass (and it's clear they'll get more play in later books), but they feel almost teasing. They violate Chekov's rule: If there's a gun on the mantle in Act One, it should go off by Act Three. The blurb promises me "a secret in their blood that could unlock the mystery of Ellada", and the book delivers only in the barest way on that promise.
concept . 5/5Where high-concept young adult fantasy is concerned, Lam nails it. She stretches the limits of typical high fantasy in about every way. Typical magical European-style world? Forget that. She gives us a world where magic has gone extinct, and people puzzle over the remnants. Characters hiding in other genders? Oh, boy. Not only is this a convenient plot point, it's absolutely central to Gene's and Micah's processes of self-discovery. And it makes huge statements about pretty hot topics: what is gender? How does sexuality work? Can love transcend the gender normed bounds we've set for it? I can't say much without spoiling, but the exploration of gender and sexuality in this book is more powerful than any contemporary issues book I've picked up.
characters . 4/5Weirdly enough, I liked a lot of the side characters more than Gene and Micah. As much as I just lauded them as beacons of philosophy and progress, they just didn't always feel vibrant to me. They sometimes felt like talking points rather than people. For example, Gene the tomboy upper class lady. What was she beyond that? That's a hard question for me to answer, and one that Lam really needs to explore in later books. I connected more deeply with the side characters, who were beautifully complex. You have the battered wife of the circus ringleader; the tired retiring aerialist; the animal-like bull man; the circus leader tyrant. It's a cast that I wanted more of, especially since I felt so disconnected from Micah and Gene. They needed to be cut a bit so they didn't overshadow the protagonists, or explored more so that their potential as characters fully came through. As such, many of the side characters had teasing moments of complexity that never went anywhere.
style . 4/5Lam's style is often beautiful, often quote-worthy. Her descriptions are perfect for fantasy, with a mix of precision and a kind of lyrical quality. That said, Gene's and Micah's voices flagged. I couldn't pick them out from many other fantasy protagonists. I can't pinpoint exactly what bugged me, but something was missing. Hollow, even. I felt a distance from them that limited my investment in their fates.
mechanics . 3/5The parallel narrative is a great way to create mystery, make analogies, tease the reader. Lam excels in some of these capacities and fails in others. On the good side, she does a fantastic job of pairing Gene scenes and Micah scenes that complement each other in some way. Either they have a related theme or they illuminate something about each other. Hurrah! Unfortunately, the potential for mystery is squashed by the first few chapters. I won't elaborate, but Lam could really have hit home a huge point by keeping the reader in the dark longer. Once you know the secret, having parallel stories seems pointless.
take home messageA surprising fantasy that pairs a cutting exploration of gender and sexual identity with the magic of the circus and the mystery of a post-magical fantasy world.
Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review. The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.