Book Review: Pantomime (Micah Grey #1), by Laura Lam
Title: Pantomime (Micah Grey #1)
Author: Laura Lam
Publisher: Strange Chemistry, February 5, 2013
Length: 392 pages
Price: $9.99 US
Ellada is a wondrous place. From the mysterious beauty of the smooth, blue outcrops of glowing Penglass, to the small, dusty apartment of the local spice merchant, curiosities abound. The inhabitants of old may be long gone, but their memory lives on in mechanical artifacts and tales brimming with strange magics.
Sixteen-year old Iphigenia ‘Gene’ Laurus would much rather romp through fields and climb trees in a shirt and trousers with her brother and their friends than be trussed up in corsets and lace for the debutante ball. She’s certain no one would want her anyway, with her ‘condition’ and all, but Gene isn’t being given much of a choice in the matter. When she discovers there’s something even more important she isn’t going to be given a choice about, Gene has very little time to make some very big decisions.
Micah Grey is a runaway, hiding from authorities and trying to find his way in a world much bigger and more dangerous than his life as a sheltered noble had ever let him experience before. When he joins R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic as their newest aerialist, Micah begins to learn what it means to really belong … until his past and present come crashing together.
Pantomime is the debut novel by author Laura Lam, due out from Angry Robot’s YA imprint, Strange Chemistry, in February of 2013. Many novelists debut with a good, if somewhat shaky story. This is not the case with Laura Lam. If Lam presents this strongly in her first published novel, readers of YA spec-fic have a new author to keep eyes on.
Pantomime is an enthralling tale about identity, set against a backdrop where almost nothing is what it seems. The circus is all about the illusion created for the audience, and Lam shows that sometimes, so is everyday life. Lam’s world-building skills are well-honed, creating a land with a full, colorful history and mythologies that feel well-fleshed. Beautiful scenes of magic, mystery and intrigue are painted with a skillful pen. Characters are wholly believable, with full, complex personalities readers will identify with easily. Circus tents and costumes are dusty yet vibrant, dirty but rich, altogether creating a nostalgic fantasy world this reader was happy to get lost in.
The text begins in the summertime, when Micah is caught snooping around the circus and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to audition to be a performer. Following chapters alternate back and forth between Micah’s and Gene’s stories. At times, this can be a touch confusing, because the two characters have quite literally everything in common, but even this was done with skill and purpose. Never does clarity lack where clarity is wanted, and never does the flow falter, the pace always exactly where it needs to be.
In fact, the only thing I dislike about Pantomime, is it is not possible to discuss the story in the depth it deserves without spilling spoilers all over the page: a thing I do not like to do, as readers deserve to discover things anew on their own. After outlining the overall story and discussing the technical merits of the writing itself, all that’s left is discussion on the salient points the book makes. From here on, it is up to you to decide how badly you want to know what this book is about. As this is a work of fantasy, it feels safe to say we’ve reached the edge of the map of the known world. Caution: Here be spoilers.
There are generous clues leading up to a twist in Pantomime’s plot. When Gene and Micah’s stories come together, readers are given confirmation that yes, Gene and Micah are, in fact, one person; one intersex person, who had been raised as a female and taught that her unusual gender was a defect, something to be ashamed of, by a mother who cared more for what society thought than what was healthy for her daughter. Gene made the difficult decision to run away when she overheard her parents talking and learned not only was she adopted, but she was also about to have surgery the next day to remove her ‘deformity’ … a surgery they never mentioned was a possibility, let alone did they ever ask her thoughts on it.
At this point, I should mention my intention to use whichever female/male pronouns go along with how Gene/Micah is identifying at a given point in the story. Where circumstances are more generalized, I will use female pronouns, as that is how Gene is most accustomed to thinking of herself in general in this book. The fact that I need to include this disclaimer, instead of using intersex-specific pronouns speaks volumes. They simply don’t exist in any kind of standardized, well-known form, and they need to. That I had to ‘teach’ my electronics that ‘intersex’ is a word is even more telling. And, truth be told, Gene/Micah isn’t truly intersex, either … having full sets of both male and female organs, she is a true hermaphrodite — something that, in our real-life world, is physiologically impossible, which is why the term intersex was created — to help dispel the myth that intersex people have all working parts of both sexes. They do not. However, as true hermaphrodites cannot exist and intersex people do and this story bears strongly on struggles they go through, I will treat Gene/Micah as intersex. This may make some people angry with me, if they think I am furthering the hermaphrodite/intersex confusion, but honestly … I am doing my best to take this discussion where it needs to go and be informative of those differences at the same time. Please bear with me.
As if the identity crisis that comes along with finding out suddenly and unexpectedly that one is adopted weren’t enough, Gene is suddenly thrust into a position where she has a very limited amount of time to figure out who she is — something it takes most of us our whole lives to figure out. Understandably confused growing up in an environment that taught her half of the things she felt and loved were ‘wrong’ to feel and love, Gene has a lot to learn about herself, as well as the world at large. As Gene, she was attracted to boys she knew. As puberty progressed around the same time she ran away and her body continued to develop, Gene found herself attracted to girls as well, complete with male physical responses, and her confusion only grew, as her former sheltered life had never taught her any sexuality other than hetero existed, and she was completely unprepared for the eventuality that her male parts might be as – or more – responsive as her female parts. No one ever bothered to discuss the possibility that her penis might get hard, because they had so firmly set her as a female in their own minds and planned to make her fully female as soon as possible, regardless of Gene’s feelings.
I imagine life as a parent of an intersex child would be difficult, as well. Surgery can be performed shortly after birth, and the child then might never have to know the social stigma involved with being born different. But there is no way of knowing which gender the child will someday identify with most, and what do you say, then? (“Sorry, honey, we already had a boy. You get to be a girl. Go play with your dolls.” – or – “Sorry, honey, I had no way to know. I wish I could take it back.”) And that’s the stickler, right there. Surgery cannot be taken back. Once that decision is made, there is no way to put things back the way they were to begin with. Approximations may be made, but not without considerable trauma and confusion. Then, there is the option to not perform surgery; to wait until the child is old enough to make those decisions for themselves. Possibly the most noble decision, as the child remains whole and involved in their own fate, but this is not without its repercussions, either. This child’s entire life will be spent figuring out who they are or want to be, which is painful enough for the average person. Every question of identity and self will be magnified by the simple fact that these questions no longer just want answers, they need answers. And all the while, the child will be growing up subjected to ridicule and isolation, because the world around them simply doesn’t want to be bothered to understand and just let them be.
The story of Gene/Micah’s sexual preference confusion also addresses concerns faced by anyone of a sexuality they have never known existed. If a person grows up in an environment where a person is either hetero or gay/lesbian, what are they to think when they find themselves attracted to both sexes? Or if they find themselves completely unattracted to anyone in a sexual manner? When peers notice a person acting ‘differently’ than what they expect of a hetero person and ask, “are you gay/lesbian?” and the person knows they aren’t, because they don’t ‘like’ anyone or they also ‘like’ the opposite sex, all they can say is no, and everyone else goes on assuming they are hetero (or lying), while said person is left to wonder, if they aren’t gay/lesbian but they don’t seem to be like most everyone else, then what are they? In the internet age, this is perhaps becoming somewhat less of a problem, but not less enough. While simply searching Google may provide a label, it does nothing to increase understanding, or to bringing acceptance from family and peers.
Pantomime is almost guaranteed to win awards, as well as being banned in places it most desperately needs to be read. The main themes of identity, sexuality, and gender norms are hugely controversial topics today, polarizing populations as few other things can. On the other hand, coming just on the heels of US elections proving that there is a larger shift towards acceptance occurring, this may be just the perfect time to force these topics into the light of day and give them their due discussion. Many schools in the US are shying away from discussing these issues at all, for fear of backlash, but the spate of teen suicides in Minnesota’s Independent School District 11 (Anoka/Hennepin) and elsewhere has shown – to those who care to see the truth – that pretending controversial subjects don’t exist is no way to help our society learn about them. Each and every one of our kids has a right to understand themselves and their place in the world, and to feel loved, accepted, and human. Our children are the ones paying the price for some people’s refusal to accept reality.
The book says a lot about society’s expectations on us to conform, as well as the effects those expectations can have – expectations of kids, of boys and girls and how these expectations differ between genders, even our expectations about gender in general. It also does a good job of exploring and illustrating how those expectations have and have not changed over time, showing that even in societal norms, evolution is a necessary and inevitable thing. Pantomime speaks a lot about how society makes people who differ from the norm (in this case, because of a supposed physical ‘deformity’) feel shamed and fear being ostracized, put on display, made fun of – as if this physical difference changes who they are, or even the fact that they are a person, a human being with thoughts and feelings, with a right to live their life with the same freedoms, dreams and goals as everyone else.
Being sixteen is hard, for everyone. At what is arguably the most confusing point in a human life, the last thing anyone needs is added pressure because of differences we have absolutely no control over. How sad a world must we live in, when kids are killing themselves because they are constantly ridiculed, or fear being ridiculed, simply for being who they are? How sad a world must we live in, when some people are okay with the fact that this is happening, even if they don’t think they are contributing to it, when they are?
The circus, the trapeze, and the tightrope are amazingly apt metaphors for the careful balancing act Gene (at this point, Micah) must live through on a daily basis. Past experiences have instilled in him deep fears of rejection. These fears have a direct effect on his future behaviors, causing him to be less open with people who would be willing to accept him for who he is. But when you lie by omission, you leave open the avenue of assumption, and you cannot always guess where that road will lead. When Micah is finally forced into finding the courage to open up to the people who love him, these people are hurt by the omissions, not understanding why they couldn’t be trusted, causing a downward spiral of fear and guilt that is increasingly harder to get out of. In the end, far more than just those who are different end up being hurt. The toll on society at large is far greater than those who judge so cruelly ever care to admit. And in real life, we don’t have any safety nets.
I imagine Pantomime will run either hot or cold among readers. The story inspires deep thought and understanding of social differences for those who are open to such things, a catalyst for exploring further our expectations and treatment of one another. I think everyone should read it, and everyone who reads it will be affected; no one will walk away from this story with lukewarm feelings about it. Some will love that it humanizes people outside of societal norms and lets readers understand the pain and difficulties that daily tasks so many of us take for granted can cause. Others will be affronted by this very same thing, threatened by their own lack of understanding. Still more may be upset by the way Gene/Micah’s sexuality and sexual identity hinges on mythology, another part of the hermaphrodite/intersex confusion; but I think overall, the thought and attention given to the topic at all will be appreciated by the vast majority of people, regardless of gender specifics.
Laura Lam manages to fit all of this into one volume, with tons of action and suspense leading up to a thrilling climax and a cliffhanger ending begging for a sequel. I’ve only just finished Pantomime, and already I’m dying to know when book two comes out (hint: I think the author is in the editing stages now, so it’ll be awhile, given book one releases in February).
Bravo, Ms. Lam. A stellar debut performance. Take a bow.