Pantomime by Laura Lam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This quarter at CSUEB, I'm taking two classes with one of the school's most beloved English Department professors, who mentioned this book recently and got me to want to read it.
I was not disappointed.
What I've just read is something of a missing link between The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, with its fantastical circus setting, and A Darker Shade of Magic, with its alternate-world thing going on - not to mention its high concentration of LGBT+ characters. (It makes me wonder whether or not Victoria Schwab read this book at any point, whether before or after writing ADSOM or A Gathering of Shadows or A Conjuring of Light.) This, I think, is the first book I've read with a non-binary protagonist (and the back-cover blurb does a shockingly good job of hiding that particular plot point by making it appear as if Gene and Micah are two different people) in first-person POV (ADSOM has the former only, I believe), which I think is always very useful for getting into characters' heads. And boy, does Lam get us into Micah's head. (I'm still not quite sure which pronouns I should use to refer to Micah, although I'll be going with male ones to match his circus identity.)
Before joining the circus, Micah lived as a girl named Gene (short for Iphigenia, exactly the sort of highfalutin name that annoyed me in my other recent read, Etiquette and Espionage). However, Gene is intersex, and her mother was concerned that this was the source of her frequent "boyish" behavior - so, eventually, she resolved to subject Gene to surgery after years of doctor visits and "treatments" to try and get to the bottom of this. She rightly has enough of this, eventually running away and joining the circus under a boy's name and identity.
There, Micah finds a certain kinship in the cast of outcast characters he now works with. But he remains very guarded about his secrets - not only his ambiguous gender and sexuality (both of which he continuously questions, and I don't blame him, having had a lot of similar questions about myself at that age) but also about the upper-crust family he ran away from. And then there's his burgeoning magic (it's pretty strongly implied that being intersex is the source of his abilities), which helps set the stage for an electrifying climax that feels straight out of The Young Elites, if not X-Men.
I've not read too many books that deal in non-binary gender identity as a primary theme, and this one, being set in an alternate past, proves how timeless this particular facet of the human condition truly is. And when this theme is paired with a protagonist whose head you don't want to leave once you're inside it, that's just a bonus.
Five stars to this book for sheer uniqueness.
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