When I was quite young, I was taken to the circus. I think it was around then that my sister and I stared using the phrase "run away and join the circus." Back then, in the late 70s, you still could -- at least hypothetically -- do just that. These days, circuses are rarer, but if ever a book made me want to run away and join one, it's Pantomime.
Not that the book is all sweetness and light. A lot of terrible things happen, and the main characters have some pretty big issues to deal with. But Laura Lam makes the circus magical once more, and I was captivated from the first page.
- Full Title: Pantomime
- Author: Laura Lam
- Publisher: Strange Chemistry
- Publication Date: 2013
- ISBN: 9781908844378 (North America), 9781908844361 (UK), 9781908844385 (e-book)
Fly Away, Flying Trapeze
It's always fascinated me the the verb "to fly" means both to travel through the air under one's own power (or in a powered vehicle), and to flee, to run away. In Pantomime, both of those meanings are evoked. Micah Grey is fleeing -- from the law, and from the person he used to be -- and he runs right into a circus. There, he dares the flying trapeze, and is taken on as a worker and allowed to train as an aerialist.
Iphigenia Laurus was raised in a life of privilege, and feels trapped in the corsets and frilly dresses her mother makes her wear. She'd much rather be climbing -- trees, scaffolding, the outcrops of ancient Penglass that are the strange remnants of an ancient civilization. Her life and Micah's intersect, but perhaps not in the way you were expecting.
It's a little bit frustrating that I can't really say much more about the story than that without giving away a big spoiler upon which a considerable amount of the book's tension depends. And for me, the joy of discovering that my suspicions were right was one of the many delights Pantomime offers, and I don't want to ruin it for others. (If you really must know, see the bit labelled "Content Warning (Spoiler!)" at the end of this review. I'd rather you didn't read it, but I know some of my readers will want the information it contains.)
Magic World, Magic Words
In the world of Pantomime, magic may or may not be real. Some of the things that happen seem supernatural, but then again, there's also this ancient civilization that left behind artifacts called "Vestige", so the magic might actually be advanced technology. Or it might really be magic after all. It feels a little steampunk even. Lam never feels the need to explain, and I'm glad she didn't. It's one of the delicious mysteries in the book that will, I hope, be explored in future books, but only little by little, letting the reader feel like they're discovering things for themselves.
And much of the worldbuilding in Pantomime is like that. Enough is explained, either in the context of the story, or by the narrator, that I was never left confused about anything for long. But at the same time, an awful lot simply isn't explained, and I never felt it needed to be. A lot of the world's past is unknown to the people who live in it, too, and the mystery of the Alder, of Penglass, the Vestige, and other things, is completely enchanting.
Laura Lam's writing, too, is magical. It doesn't read like a first novel at all, though as far as I have been able to ascertain, it is. Perhaps it's her first published novel, which is a rather different thing. At any rate, both the style of the writing and the characters, pacing, and everything else that goes into a novel are handled with skill and grace. I did read a few reviews that complained that nothing really happens, plot-wise, but that wasn't a problem for me. So much happens in the characters' emotional development that I didn't need a lot of action (though there is some of that, especially at the end).
The author, Laura Lam, is a little bit of a mystery, too. Her bio is tantalizingly brief, stating that she grew up near San Francisco, and now lives with her husband in Scotland. Her parents were hippies, and she met her husband on the internet.
But we don't need to know everything about a writer to love their work, do we?
A Verdict, A Spoiler, And A Warning
This is one of two books I read this year that make me want to buy multiple copies and give them to people, extracting solemn vows to read it. But of course, making people read books can also make them hate books. Witness the many people who suffer through high school English literature classes and graduate with a hatred of the classics. (The other book is Plain Kate, by Erin Bow.)
So I won't haunt streetcorners with boxes of books accosting anyone silly enough to look me in the eye. Instead, I'll just say that while Pantomime is probably not for everyone (see the warning/spoiler below if you think you might be one of those), it is very, very good. It's not even 2013 yet as I write this, and I can easily imagine it topping my list of favorite books published in 2013.
And now for both the warning and the spoiler at once. If you aren't offended by much in terms of content (no, there's no actual sex in this book), then please skip the next paragraph. Spoilers spoil, and I don't want to spoil your discovery. (I know, I know, telling you not to read it will make you want to read it more. Sorry.) If you are offended by so-called "touchy" topics, then I suppose you should read the warning, so you won't hate me for telling you to read this book.
Content Warning (Spoiler!)
I don't really even want to include this paragraph, but since parents may be reading this review to decide whether or not their kids should read Pantomime, I kind of feel like I have to. There is no sex in the book, though sexuality is mentioned in a fairly innocuous way. What might give offence to some readers is that the main character is intersex, raised female, disguised as male, but feeling neither male nor female but something of both. This is not a gratuitous or titillating characteristic, but is handled with sensitivity. The character's physical sexual self is a driving force for her actions, and learning to be herself is really the main point of the story.