Can we get one thing out of the way? The main character, described as two people on the cover blurb, is actually an intergender teen called Iphigenia by her family and taking the name Micah when he goes out on his own. This is not a ‘plot twist,’ nor some cheap trick to fool the reader. It is not a gimmick, nor an incidental fact that has no bearing on the story. This is Micah’s story, his gender (I will use ‘he’ as the pronoun due to Micah choosing to present as male for most of the story) is the catalyst that drives the story. Micah’s attempts to define his gender to himself, to understand what it means both physically and within the social bounds, make the core of the story. It is the thread that ties everything together; it is the reasoning behind so many day to day decisions Micah has to make. The way it is handled may be the highlight of the book.
Bouncing between past and present with ease we watch Gene/Micah grow and learn. Gene chapters focus on a young girl in noble society, hiding a secret but above that giving a good fight against the norms forced on her. These chapters are full of shame but also love, time spent with a family confused and conflicted. Contrast with Micah chapters; a young man learning the ropes in the circus. Seemingly showing more freedom and acceptance; but still confined by his secret. I could go on and on about Micah’s growth as a character but let’s be honest, others have probably done so and done it much more elegantly. So let me leave the character study behind and move on to the other elements of the book.
Pantomime is a young adult fantasy first; with all the trim and trappings of the genre. Being a study of character within a fantasy setting it is not an action book, nor is there any big bad threat to the world at large. There is a hint that Micah could be more important to the world at large running though, but if that is the case it will have to wait for further volumes. Instead this is a fantasy completely focused on one character making his way. This is not an action packed book, though action is present, so it may not appeal to some readers due to a slower pace. And flashbacks are well known for causing some readers to grind their teeth. So if either of these things could cause you pause, look for another book. If you are willing to look past that there are some great things going on.
There is some hidden depths to the seemingly generic fantasy world. An ancient civilization has left its mark all over the world, most noticeable with glowing glass Penglass littering the landscape. Also present are old artifacts that still have uses; and these are more relevant to the world we are part of. For it is these seemingly magical artifacts that give the circus Micah joins much of its sense of wonder, from fog effects to a magical fairy like creature that seems to speak to Micah. There are many possible ways this could go, I am off a mind that the world is earth of the future, but certainly nothing is given away yet.
The time spent with the circus is fun, but it would be a bad book indeed that managed to not do wonders with a circus in fantasy land. Learning the secrets of the freak show, flying through the air with the trapeze artists, seeing little details like the skill and dexterity it takes to be a clown; all fun. While Micah steals the show he is surrounded by quite a cast. And the threat of a Shadow, a legal bounty hunter of sorts, gives a since of danger to the story throughout.
Really my only nitpicks are actually fears of what may come. There is a character that shows a fairly dark side yet never seems to give Micah pause. I hope said characters complacency in a specific act isn’t glossed over going forward. And it wouldn’t be a fantasy without the main character turning into something of a chosen one, which is fine. But I am a little worried how there seems to me magic tied to being intersexual; please don’t make all the growth he went through nothing more than a gimmick for super powers. That could break my heart.
I know Pratchett once said something to the effect that to write YA he doesn’t dumb down the books, he just writes the same story about younger characters. Valente said she wouldn’t talk down to your child. Lam has written in this same mold; this book had more depth and was much smarter than many ‘adult’ fantasy novels I have read recently. Do I have a copy of its sequel sitting around here? No? Damn. Going to have to fix that.