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Bookish Delights: Pantomime

Pantomime by Laura Lam

This book was my first read for my Diverse Summer Reading Challenge. Potential spoilers below!

Historians believe Ellada was once a veritable utopia brimming with magical splendor and technological wonders. But life hasn't been the same since the mysterious Alder disappeared, taking the lifeforce of the world with them and leaving only sparse remnants behind: precious Vestige artefacts whose magic is nearly used up and mysterious blue Penglass domes that speckle the landscape like shining drops of dew.

To get a glimpse of old world charm, one only need visit one of the many traveling circuses, such as R. H. Ragona's Circus of Magic which touts dazzling feats of human acrobatics and curiosities salvaged from the past.

For young Micah Grey, a vagabond with a sordid past and a knack for climbing, the allure of the circus doesn't end when the curtains fall, and he soon finds himself entrenched in the lifestyle of an impoverished performer. Surrounded by a troupe of strangers masking dark secrets--and hiding a few of his own--he attempts to carve out a place where he truly belongs while coming to terms with his identity.

At this juncture, I should mention Iphigenia Laurus, who in official marketing copy is vaguely offered as a main character opposite of Micah although this is quite misleading. Iphigenia, who would rather you call her Gene thankyouverymuch, is a young lady of aristocratic status who is decidedly not interested in playing the part expected of her in high society. She likes playing with the boys and is especially adept at physical activities deemed unbecoming of a lady.

This is where things get a little weird, from a marketing standpoint. As the Book Smugglers mention in their review, the original cover copy fails to accurately represent the plot of the novel it is selling; instead, it sets up the narrative in a way that makes it sound as though it is a story about two star-crossed runaways that find each other in the circus and either fall in love or discover they are long lost siblings or some other standard YA fare. Unless you've previously read reviews or heard through the grapevine that the book deals with LGBTQIA+ themes, you'd most likely go into this book with the assumption that it was a novel about dual fates or some such nonsense. This couldn't be further from the truth because spoiler/not spoiler*, the two main characters are the same person.

Pantomime by Laura Lam
Revised summary, courtesy of The Book Smugglers:

An intersex teen, Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, raised as the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Gene’s parents wish to force a decision on which gender Gene will spend the rest of Gene’s life as, so Gene runs away from home, assumes the identity of Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star.

I'll get back to the marketing disaster a little later.

Laura Lam's Pantomime is an exciting tale that takes two wildly different perspectives of the same world and weaves them together in a single brilliant narrative. Ellada is a sort of fantasy Victorian era ruled by a Monarch, and Micah and Gene represent the upper and lower echelons of society. Both stories are interspersed throughout the novel, so you see glimpses of his past as Gene while you follow him on his current journey as Micah. The alternating chapter structure works well with this sort of narrative, but at times I felt like Gene's backstory kept the momentum barreling forward while Micah's plot dawdled along.

For a story that sells itself with magic and intrigue, there is little to be found until the last third of the book. Micah's plot obviously focuses a good deal on daily life in the circus, and although it's incredibly fascinating, it often felt as though it was continuously skimming the surface, not daring to go too deep too soon, lest there be dragons. Or sharks.

(Or both.)

So by the time the fantastical elements surface and the pace begins to quicken, the book has ended. Abruptly, for that matter, with a cliffhanger that will make you grateful that there is no waiting for a sequel to release.

Micah/Gene is a wonderful character for a number of reasons. He's ostracized and Othered simply for existing in a body that defies the norm. As Gene, he is compelled to partake in a gender role that doesn't suit him while struggling with issues of gender/sexual identity and gender performance. Since he was socialized as a female, he questions his sexual attraction to women while wondering what it means to also be attracted to men. This is a twist on a common trope of the tomboyish lady unwilling to conform to the the limitations placed on her because of her gender. (See also: Arya Stark.) The story arc alternates between shame and acceptance as Micah explores his desires and learns to overcome self-imposed limitations with regards to gender. It's refreshing to see a character like Micah who is written delicately and doesn't fall victim to hilariously misrepresented stereotypes.

Unfortunately, the stellar representation falls flat once intersex is revealed to be conflated with a magical demi-god figure called the Kedi--super strong, magical beings that are half man, half woman, and were once worshipped in society alongside Chimeras (half human, half magical beast). The Kedi are used to empower Micah and reassure him that he is not alone, but are invoked in a way that furthers the Otherness of being intersex by implying abnormality. Micah isn't simply an intersex teen, he's literally defined by his genitals.

That isn't to say it's not an enjoyable novel, and I highly suggest nabbing a copy now if you're the slightest bit interested because Strange Chemistry, the publisher, has closed shop. There's a good chance Pantomime and its sequel Shadowplay will find a new home, but until then they could also go out of print.

Now, going back to the issue I touched on earlier: I'm not thrilled with the way this book was marketed by Strange Chemistry.

In the context of the novel, the official cover copy don't make sense. Since the book was ultimately marketed ambiguously with Micah and Gene sort of pitted against each other in a fill-in-the-blanks kind of way, it wanders into straightwashing territory. Were the publishers hoping to reach a wider audience by using choice omission?

Furthermore, it's impossible to discuss the novel without revealing Micah's intersex status, which is considered a spoiler by some since the blurb's wording makes it sound as though this is some sort of twist in the story. This is a fallacy because it is absolutely obvious from the beginning that Micah and Gene are the same person. His intersex status not used as a spoiler, gimmick, or plot twist. There is no climactic build to a grand "reveal" or "surprise twist;" in fact it's treated with deliberate purpose. Lam doesn't write either character differently and doesn't attempt to bury facts that would tie the two together. It may not be explicitly stated until later in the novel, but it's painfully obvious well before then because it's what the entire novel is about. The Book Smuggler explains:

To try and play this as well as the fact that Micah/Gene is intersex as a secretive plot twist is to expect this news to be shocking and mindblowing. To us, this reads at best as exploitative and at worst as playing into the self-fulfilling assumption that readers need to be tricked into reading a LGBTQ novel.

Pantomime won the Bisexual Book Award in Speculative Fiction for 2014. In her acceptance speech, Laura Lam mentions how she feared the book would struggle to find a publisher because of the low diversity rate in YA publishing because bisexual and transgender characters receive the lowest rate of representation. The fact that her book was able to find a home, albeit one who felt the need to make it pass for straight, is a huge achievement. Diverse books are still hard to come by. Queer representation is still depressingly low, and bi/ace/trans*/intersex-erasure is still a legitimate problem. Why are we still trying to benefit from obscuring queer media?

This article was featured on Feminspire.

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