Book review: Pantomime

A magical, spellbinding and ferociously clever YA fantasy novel that deals with themes of gender and sexual identity and features characters and jaw-dropping plot twists that will keep you hooked right up until the end.

Pantomime by Laura Lam (Strange Chemistry)
I have to start off by saying that Pantomime has got to be one of the boldest and most unique young adult fantasy novels that I’ve read since Cat Hellisen’s When the Sea is Rising Red. 

Now I probably should have realised this when I read a passage in the book where the main character finds herself being accused of being afflicted with genital warts - but in reality - it was only when Iphigenia Laurus’ naughty little tryst with a boy revealed something about her (that I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored so bravely in YA fiction before) that I realised that this gem of a read was more than just a novel about flying trapeze artists, circus parlour tricks and magic.

Instead, Pantomime proves itself to be a deeply complex, intriguing and exquisitely layered novel that deals with themes of gender and sexual identity and is all about learning to be comfortable  in your own skin and embracing that which sets you apart from everyone else.

The book is cleverly plotted and is ingenious in the manner in which it is structured. I’m afraid I can’t go into detail about it, because I think the way the story unfolds is the best part of the novel and is one of the major contributing factors that add to Pantomime’s distinctiveness.

It’s also one of the reasons that this review is proving to be so hard to write – I want to tell you ALL THE THINGS, but I can’t because you need to experience this book in all of its masterful splendour.

The one thing I will say is that if you read this book very carefully, you’ll be able to pick up some subtle hints that give you an indication of just what exactly is going on.

I certainly had my suspicions about the way Iphigenia and Micah’s (the boy who ran away from home to join the circus) lives were intertwined, but even so, when what I suspected was confirmed, it didn’t lessen the impact of the sheer cleverness of it all.

Because of this, I’ve also seen many people accusing the book of being misleading with regards to its synopsis, but I think, for those who enjoy a good plot twist, when all is finally revealed, you’ll appreciate how clever the synopsis really is.

I know I certainly did.

For me, Pantomime is a deliciously and fiercely intelligent fantasy novel which boasts impressive settings, fantastically diverse characters, strange creatures and a romantic element that will keep you guessing for most of the novel.

I admit that I picked this novel up on the basis of the fact that I enjoyed and loved the settings of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

Of course, when I finally read Pantomime, I realised that the two definitely couldn’t compare, nor were they even remotely similar – something which is not a bad thing at all.

While both settings are incredibly magical in their very nature, Pantomime’s towns and villages are a lot more earthier, with market stalls and vendors providing a backdrop that at once made me think I was in the midst of a Gypsy market, while at the same time conjuring up images of fantastical creatures straight out of a rare and almost unheard of mythological encyclopaedia (I especially love the damselfly).

There are also some steampunk elements scattered throughout the novel that only serves to put Pantomime inyo a category of its own. Because of this, for me, this book had both somewhat of a Victorian feel, combined with picturesque fantasy; which again added to all the aspects that I already loved about this book.

And then there are the characters.

Once again I find myself wishing I could go more into detail, but that would only spoil things for you. To give you a brief summation of it though, I can tell you that Micah and Gene couldn’t be more different, nor could they be more the same.

When we meet Gene, we’re introduced to a girl who is forced to endure a life filled with tea parties, pretty corsets and debutante balls. In reality, our Gene is a bit of a tomboy; preferring to run around, swinging from tree to tree and scampering up buildings surrounded by scaffolding.

Micah on the other hand, is a streetwise runaway who joins a circus and trains to be an aerialist.  When his and Gene’s world collide, both of them soon realise that in a world filled with balancing acts, that maintaining the perfect poise is a lot harder than it seems.

And in a circus filled with magic tricks and illusions, blood secrets may just be what is needed to tip the balancing scales.

Both Micah and Gene are very mysterious, but incredibly likeable characters. They’re the kind of personalities that make you both want to hug and root for them, while at the same time fearing for them because of some of the choices they make.

The relationships and bonds they form with the people around them adds a level of complexity that constantly seems frayed at the edges and taught with tension – both the good and bad kind. 

The supporting and strange characters that feature in Pantomime and encompass the world in which Micah and Gene find themselves thrust in,  are fascinating in the own peculiar way; each with their own share of idiosyncrasies.

Their relationships with Aenea (Micah’s trainer) and Drystan (the clown) make for a romantic element that will have you both swooning, while keeping you on edge. Personally, I found Drystan, with his hooded, broody and secretive eyes, a lot more compelling than Aenea – who, for some reason, I just didn’t gel or connect with.

Still, this didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the novel, and the ending itself, certainly sets the perfect tone for the sequel, Shadowplay, which comes out in 2014. 

Aside from one criticism – that being that for me it felt as if this was written with the idea that one should have already been familiar with the settings and the names of the different places, Pantomime proves to be a work of art.

It’s also one of my first favourite reads of 2013.

I truly applaud Laura Lam for writing a book that knocked me off kilter – I really can’t wait to see what you have in store for us next.


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