Laura Lam – Pantomime

Cover Laura Lam's PantomimeR.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

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.

When I read the synopsis for Pantomime I was intrigued and when I saw the cover I was sold. And then I read the book and I fell in love. What an absolutely gorgeous book. It’s tough to talk about Pantomime without giving spoilers. Pantomime has a secret and it’s a big one and once it’s revealed the scope of the entire narrative changes. It’s a powerful narrative, filled with fabulous characters and a great plot.

The characters inhabiting Pantomime are amazing. Both its protagonists, Gene and Micah, are trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. Lam explores their desires, uncertainties and secrets in depth and with a deftness that exposes both their fragility and their strength in equal measure. I loved the characters Micah encounters at the circus, from his aerialist teacher Aenea to the kind clown Drystan – and yes, thank god not all clowns in this book were scary, otherwise I couldn’t have gone on. The first few minutes of It scarred me for life at age nine – sad Frit and the interesting collection of freaks who turn out to be more human in most cases than normal humans. The interactions between the various circus people are funny and lovely and sad. The way they treated Micah when he arrived, the tricks and the hazing, was perhaps rather cruel and cold, but it also seemed a form of self-protection; if Micah could be scared off by their hazing, then he’d not hurt them by leaving once they’d come to care for him and made them part of their ‘family’. In this manner there are layers upon layers in everyone’s actions and behaviour, which get more exposed at each twist in the narrative.

If I can’t really talk about the characters in detail without giving the game away, then let me talk about the setting, because it was luscious. Set in a Victorian-ish society, but one where at times it seemed that at one point there was some advanced technologies – bits of which still remain – at times I wondered whether this was a very far-future post-apocalyptic Earth or a secondary world. The world was lush and detailed, overlaid with a sepia-tinge. Ellada and its neighbours are riven with Vestige, both in the form of Penglass and in the form of artefacts, such as the weather machine used at the circus and the clockwork woman’s head Micah and Aenea see at the Museum of Mechanical Antiquities in Imachara. The translucent blue Penglass and the mystery of the globes’ contents and the mysterious Vestige artefacts that seem, but aren’t quite like familiar technology.

The structure of the narrative was very well-crafted. The story is braided together from two story lines, the one set in the spring, the other in the summer, until they both flow into autumn and beyond. These seasons echo the feel of the novel, bright and hopeful in spring, the glory days of summer, and the abrupt turning of the weather in autumn. The first person viewpoints both limit what the reader knows and give us access to our protagonists deepest emotions and thoughts, though this doesn’t prevent Lam from letting them keep secrets from us. The prose and dialogue are well-paced, snappy and sometimes almost poetic. I enjoyed the writing style; it reads easily and is an interesting blend between modernity and an old-fashioned gloss.

Pantomime is a stunning debut and would have easily made my top ten for 2012 if it hadn’t been a 2013 title. As it is, it is the first 2013 book I’ve read and those coming behind have a tough act to follow. Laura Lam deals with some highly sensitive issues in a respectful and deft manner. Pantomime is a story of self-discovery and acceptance and shows the journey two very different and extraordinary individuals have to take to achieve it. There is no way for me to explain how wonderful this book is without ruining the reading experience for you. So just trust me, even if you normally don’t read YA, read Pantomime once it comes out in February; you won’t regret it. My only regret is that I’ll have to wait till then to openly discuss its awesome plot twists. And wait even longer to find out what’s next.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.