6 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Joint Review: Pantomime by Laura Lam

PantomimeTitle: Pantomime

Author: Laura Lam

Genre: Fantasy, LGBT, Young Adult

Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Publication date: February 2012
Hardcover: 392 pages

R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star.

But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

Stand alone or series: First in a series

How did we get this book: Review copy from the publisher via Netgalley

Format (e- or p-): eARC


Ana’s Take:

I will start by simply saying: Pantomime’s cover copy is supremely misleading. One would think that this is a run-of-the-mill PNR YA featuring two protagonists that seem to be about to fall in love with each other whilst a secre–zzzz, BORING. I would never had picked up this book based on this blurb had I not known from the get go what it is really about.

Allow me to rephrase the blurb slightly:

R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

An intersex teen1, 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.

But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

Now, doesn’t that sound infinitely better? You’re welcome. There is a discussion to be had about whether my reworded summary is spoilery or not but since we don’t really think this impacts on the reading of the book AT ALL, we moved this discussion to the Additional Thoughts below.

So, Pantomime. It’s mostly a very familiar coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a Fantastical world that hints to long-forgotten magic and knowledge and whose “different” protagonist joins the circus.

Of course, what makes it really distinct is the fact that the protagonist is intersex with very particular struggles that sets Micah/Gene apart. I absolutely loved Micah/Gene as a character but more than that I absolutely loved and appreciated the care given to Micah/Gene’s story-arc. The story alternates between past and present and presents Gene/Micah’s history as a mix of shame and acceptance (specially the brother Cyril), the terrible ordeals with doctors and potential suitors, the need to keep secrets. Most of all it portrays sensitively Micah/Gene’s attempts to understand, define and accept not only hir own body but hir own identity. How does hir body impact on hir gender identity? Is Micah/Gene, a boy, a girl, both, or neither?

Further, I loved how the story makes it very clear that there is an intricate but separate relationship between not only body and gender identity but also between the latter and the roles traditionally attributed to different genders. So for example: if Micah/Gene feels she is a girl but doesn’t like “girly” things like sewing and dancing does that make any her less of a girl? Can he identify as a boy if he likes dresses? What if Micah/Gene feels like hir is both? Gender identity is also different from sexual identity and thankfully this is also treated separately here and it seems that Micah might actually be bi, feeling attracted to both male and female. And that attraction shows up in the narrative in a very cool, uncomplicated way so for example when sexually aroused Micah/Gene mentions both penile and nipple erections.

For me, Micah/Gene’s arc and portrayal is the novel’s main point and its claim to success.

That said, I am not so sure about the rest of the novel and the way that Micah/Gene’s personal narrative intersects with that of the Circus as well as with the overall Fantastical background. For most of the book, as much as I appreciated Micah/Gene’s arc, I felt that the book was going nowhere. There is a world building that seemed interesting – with the long-forgotten magic and different mythologies – but barely touched upon to the point where it makes Pantomime read like a prequel, and this feeling becomes stronger upon the novel’s cliff-hanger ending. There is a question of pacing as well, very slow chapters leading to a monumentally hectic ending.

Finally, in spite of the care given to Micah/Gene’s portrayal I am unsure about the “magical” nature that intersex characters might have in the context of the novel’s world-building. It is hinted that intersex beings have existed in the past and where considered the epitome of the “complete” human and where worshipped as Gods. This is in a way extremely empowering. BUT doesn’t underlining differences reinforce otherness? I am curious and intrigued to see how the story proceeds and how the treatment of this mythology is examined in the sequel.

As an aside: Pantomime also made me think of Circuses books in general and how interesting it is to see that most books about circuses show them as a haven, a safe place for outsiders and “freaks” when real-life circus – specially the “Freak Shows” – were anything but. Coincidentally, just yesterday there was an article online about a woman’s seemingly terrible, harrowing existence as the “ugliest woman on Earth”, whose mummified body was just recently allowed a final resting place.

Overall, in spite of any misgivings, I truly enjoyed Pantomime and especially the protagonist’s incredible journey.

Thea’s Take:

I have to fully, completely, 100% agree with Ana’s assessment. The marketing copy for this book frankly bothers me. Deeply. The copy does sound like this is a story about two struggling runaways that either a) Fall in Love and find each other thanks to a Magical Circus (yes, because all circuses are romantic and magical); or b) Discover they are long lost Magical Siblings, who will together unlock the secret magic of the past. We will discuss this at length below, but it bears mentioning again:

This is not even remotely what Pantomime is about.

So. Onto the rest: Pantomime features an intersex protagonist and details Gene/Micah’s arc as both a young noblewoman debutante, and an aspiring trapeze acrobat (aerialist) at Bal’s traveling circus. Gene is raised as a girl, put into dresses and ribbons, taught to dance and play music and embroider, while zir mother drags her to physician after physician looking for a “cure.”2 As Micah, Gene reinvents zirself as a boy and makes a daring leap to join the circus as an apprentice Aerialist. Here, Micah is hazed as a newcomer and hides zir past – but it is here that Micah feels happier and more complete than ze ever has before. Where Pantomime excels is in Gene/Micah’s character – like Ana says, Laura Lam does a fantastic job of creating a nuanced, relatable character who is struggling with enormous issues of identity and finding zir place in the world, and accepting zirself. I love that Gene/Micah is an intersex character that is both male and female, that does not want a sacrifice or a “cure.” And, as Ana mentions, Gene/Micah is attracted to both men and women, loves dancing and music just as much as ze loves climbing trees and racing through the woods. The questions of self-perception, self-acceptance, and self-worth are all examined in-depth with Pantomime, and I loved ever step of Gene/Micah’s heartbreaking, wonderful arc as a character. The other characters are pretty great too – my favorites being Gene’s brother Cyril and the clown Drystan (ok, aerialist Aenea, too).

On the plotting side, however, things start to get a little more muddled. The book alternates between Gene (past) and Micah’s (present) storylines – we see Gene as ze struggles with zir societal debut as a marriageable young woman, and we see Micah as ze fights to earn zir place in the Circus. I like the alternating style of the book and the way the novel builds to join the two storylines, as we finally learn why Gene runs away from home and becomes Micah. It is a horrific, heartbreaking reveal and I think done very well. That said…the two storylines drag out a little bit too long (Gene’s in particular), and there is some clunkiness when it comes to the integration of the two, especially where the fantasy elements are concerned. Similarly, the frenetic ending of the book after such a long slow overlapping series of alternating chapters feels…abrupt. Similarly, the setting of the circus is really well done, but it’s kind of tired – a magical circus, capturing the wonder of all who enter has been done, and done, and done.

There is one real concern and problem I have with the book: the fantasy elements. While these elements of the book are interesting, they are not particularly well fleshed out (and for the vast majority of the book aren’t even necessary). Pantomime is set in a land called Ellada, where ancient magical ancestors left behind artifacts (Vestige) whose workings are mysteriously shrouded to Ellada’s now human and decidedly non-magical inhabitants. As part of the magical cast of gods that existed to create this land, there are a group of demi-gods called Kedi – both male and female, and according to the Byssians, believed to be the only creature that is ever complete. The Kedi are super strong, with heightened senses, and believed never to be ill, and worshiped alongside the Chimaera (divine humans mixed with animals – mermaids, minotaurs, men with wings).

And this is the real, significant problem I have with Pantomime, because this awesome, wonderfully portrayed intersex main character is ultimately made to be something magical and actually compared to mermaids and centaurs. Intersex people exist. They are real people. Making them magical does reinforce otherness, and this deeply bothered me. At the same time, I understand that the intentions here are good, and that one could interpret Gene/Micah’s unique magical abilities as a positive and empowering message. Personally? It bothers me.

Overall, Pantomime is a wonderfully written book, with a fantastic main character and I truly enjoyed reading it…with some reservations. Definitely recommended, and I will be around to read the next book in the series.

Notable Quotes/ Parts: You can read an excerpt HERE.

Additional Thoughts:

As promised: we wanted to talk about the misleading blurb and the hidden LGBTQ aspect of the novel which from what we gather has been treated as a “spoiler” and a “twist” as a marketing decision.

This unfortunately does not sit that well with us. First of all, it is slightly disingenuous because there isn’t really a twist at all – it is very clear from the get go that Micah and Gene are the same person so it doesn’t even make sense that blurb leads to believe that they are two different people. 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.

The “secret” surrounding the intersex character also frustrates us in the way that it makes it difficult for people interested in LGBTQ themes to find this novel and it shouldn’t be. Cass, reader/reviewer of mostly LGBTQ-focused LitFic and non-fiction at Bounjour,Cass recently wrote a guest post for Smugglivus in which she was bemoaning exactly how difficult it is to find LGBTQ books:

For whatever reason (which I would encourage debate on), publishers are still wary of promoting YA (and even mainstream adult titles) by mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity. Muddling through Amazon, catalogs, Netgalley, and websites that discuss LGBTQ books, I realized how extremely difficult it was going to be to form a list that didn’t involve me writing, “I’m PRETTY sure, based on hints from the blurb and some guessing based on my knowledge of other blurbs from books I know contain LGBTQ characters, that this book features a ____ character.”


The other hint [commonly found] is “deepest, darkest secret,” which when it’s not referring to werewolves or vampires generally means “gay” (and, less often, “transgender”).


It shouldn’t be that difficult to find books.

Micah/Gene’s story is wonderful and it would have been great if the truth of this character had been out and proud in the blurb of the novel.


Ana: 6 – Good, leaning toward 7

Thea: 6 – Good, leaning towards a 7

Reading Next: The Archived by Victoria Schwab

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo & sony

  1. Gene has almost equally male and female characteristics, with both ovarian and testicular tissue
  2. A note regarding pronouns – Ana uses “hir” to reference Gene and Micah in a gender neutral approach. I use “ze” and “zir.” If you want to read more about gender neutral language, we highly recommend you check out these resources.


  • Expy
    February 15, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Thank you soooo much for this review. I’m very glad to hear I was not the only reader who took issue with the deceptive description. OMG did it offend me, as a reader and as a LGBT individual. I also pointed this out on my review and got a bucket of flak for it. Maybe I get some goddamn relief now that y’all, being highly respected and well-known reviewers, affirmed my issue with the book. Just maybe.

  • Wendy Darling
    February 16, 2013 at 2:27 am

    I’m breaking my own rule by reading your review, but the experience of reading this book was already tainted anyway, and I was curious about your take on it.

    First of all, fantastic reviews. Like Ana, my interest in the book was piqued specifically because I’d read there were some LGBT themes in it, which is something I’m interested in and wish there was more of in YA lit. I’m only 50 pages or into it, and I can already see some of the issues that you’ve pointed out as well, so I suspect I’ll end up agreeing with the majority of both your reviews.

    I have to say something about this marketing issue, though. I am absolutely with you in wishing that more publishers did not seem to be so afraid of indicating LGBT content. It’s what specifically makes some readers pick up a book and certainly weeds out the people who might also be offended by it for whatever reason.

    But I also think the there is also a responsibility to do justice to the story, and to the reading experience. I admit I’m only or so pages into the book at this point (and I suspected that Micah and Gene are the same person), but it hasn’t been confirmed yet–and reading that on another review that popped up in my GR feed felt like a big slap in the face to me, and certainly had an influence upon my putting the book aside for now. The information we’re given in the beginning doesn’t reveal this, and as a reader I would like to have experienced that however the author wanted to unveil it rather than having the decision made for me. I’m thinking about one of my favorite authors as I write this, too–anyone whose read Sarah Waters’ books knows there there are usually lesbian characters and feminine issues addressed in her novels. But the way her characters’ stories are revealed to us unfolds slowly, as do the LGBT elements. Even when I came to expect those themes after reading my first book, I never fail to marvel at the beauty of the way she crafts her stories. Sexuality is but one part of her characters’ identities (and secondary, though obviously important, to the overarching storyline), and the process of understanding each one is one of the best pleasures of reading her books.

    You seem to be saying that the secret is revealed relatively early in the book, so I guess it’s a toss-up as to whether it’s really that spoiler-y to talk about it so openly in a review. My inclination is to still respect the reading process, but I do agree that the marketing blurb could and should have hinted at something other than a more typical story. I don’t think it’s necessary to be completely blatant about every aspect of what the book is about, though.

    And yes, it was Experiment’s review that he’s referencing above that irritated me–maybe it was the tone or the manner in which the information came out. But the discussion in your reviews did not, and I appreciate the frankness with which you discuss the book and your reservations about the marketing. Even if I’m not sure I agree.

  • Wendy Darling
    February 16, 2013 at 2:30 am

    “who’s,” not “whose.” *sigh*

  • Michelle
    February 16, 2013 at 6:47 am

    Great review. I do think the back blurb seems dishonest. People are funny about “spoilers”. I remember one person said a book was spoiled because someone said they liked the dedication.

  • Thea
    February 16, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Expy – We are so relieved that you feel the same way too about the book description hiding that the fact that Gene and Micah are the same person. It definitely struck us as offensive.

    That said, the book itself is very good and both Ana and I love, love, love Gene/Micah so much.

    Wendy – I completely see where you are coming from, and I do agree that there is a responsibility to respect the reading experience. Ana and I both try to refrain from spoilers (or at least call them out before discussing spoilers) because we really do think it’s important to preserve that experience.

    That said, both of us felt that it was very clear from the early chapters in the book that Micah and Gene are the same person. We didn’t see the revelation that Micah/Gene are the same as an actual twist, but an inevitability that is explored at length throughout the book. But…that’s just our opinion!

    Regardless, I think that there is a responsibility at the very least to make it clear that this is a book with LGBTQ characters and themes, given that the driving force of the book is Gene/Micah’s characterization and journey as an intersex protagonist. One thing both Ana and I feel very strongly about: the blurb should not be so intentionally misleading – especially not to the point where a secret romance is implied when this has absolutely nothing to do with the book.

    To me, the completely misleading description is far more damaging to the reading experience. In fact, I’m really glad that I knew before starting this book that it featured an intersex protagonist – because otherwise, I’m not entirely sure I would have read it based on the generic cover copy.

  • Wendy Darling
    February 16, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Yes, I agree the blurb is intentionally misleading, and that the LGBT characters/themes should be present there when it’s so integral to the storyline.

    I think it was just seeing so blatantly in my GR feed in the middle of my reading the book and excited about being on the cusp of the reveal that upset me so much–I felt cheated, frankly. And maybe that’s making too much out of what the situation actually is, but I can only say that’s how I felt at the time, particularly because of the PSA aspect of what I saw. It’s entirely possible I’ll feel differently when I’ve finished the whole book.

    Your review certainly make it clear what’s going to be discussed, however, and it was my choice to click on the Twitter link to read what I knew would be an in-depth and reasoned analysis of that aspect. Thanks for the terrific review, as always, and for the discussion.

  • Expy
    February 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

    @ Wendy
    Miscommunication is abound here. Although your comments on my review were disheartening to hear, they were not the bucket of flak I was referring to. The bucket of flak were the rude drive-by comments from strangers who didn’t bother reading beyond the first paragraph of my review to see my reasons. Or so it strongly seem to me, at least. Because if those people had, they would have not commented what they did and rebutted me properly.

    I deleted those strangers’ comments and subsequently blocked them. Ain’t nobody stranger be talking smack on my reviews. Unlike my generous friends who allow strangers to have their say on their reviews, I am not that generous… or just generous.

    @ Michelle
    Talking about the dedication is a spoiler? Now that’s just silliness.

    @ Thea
    Yes! I love Micah too. Only thing I recall about Micah that I dislike was when he didn’t reciprocate honesty to Aenea. That poor girl. The love triangle was just lazy.

  • Rachelia (Bookish Comforts)
    February 16, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I’m kind of shocked. I can’t believe Gene/Micah’s revelation of being intersex was the “twist”. Like you said, that seems offensive and exploitative. I find it interesting how I had NO interest in this book at all, but was curious by your tweet so I clicked over. Upon discovering what this book is actually about, I am actually somewhat interested in it now. Had the book had a better blurb (and I admit, cover) that was truthful as to its contents then I would have been excited to read it from the get-go. I’m just glad I read your review first because I think if I had managed to pick it up I would have been very confused with the story inside.

    Oh, and I too find it curious how circuses in YA fiction always seem to be welcoming, friendly, and places of safety for people whom society deems “different”. As you point out, historically this has not been the case. Perhaps it is a form of nostalgia (a lot of people imagine running away and joining the circus as a child it seems), or they don’t know the history of circuses?

    Overall, great review & discussion!! I think I may try this book if I can get my hands on it.

  • Kendra
    February 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    This is a completely incidental issue with the misleading blurb, but I think (if they did hide the intersex aspect to get more people to pick up the book) there’s a good chance that would backfire into people not liking it as much. Not for the LGBT aspect, but because you usually pick up a book because it’s the genre/mood/plot that you’re interested in reading at the time. Personally, when those expectations are subverted, I end up liking the book less than I would if I had know what it was really about. I think that’s a big disservice, and could lead to lower ratings simply by someone expecting a fantasy adventure and getting more of a deep character study.

  • Kendra
    February 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    *Though it could have been a fantasy adventure WITH an intersex main character

  • Cassie @ KnowsProse
    February 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Wow. Talk about bad advertising! Reading the cover text, I get “This is a book about a guy and a girl and they’re going to meet and help each other out of their mutually difficult situations.” *yawn*…(Well, okay, I didn’t actually yawn, but that was because I’m currently working on the third draft of a novel about a magical circus with a main character named Micah, and I was having a Twilight Zone moment. Thank goodness mine’s completely different, and I didn’t have to discover my own redundancy after a year’s worth of work.)

    But your review describes a totally different book.

    This is such a shame for readers! The ones who are looking for the promised story will be disappointed, maybe even disappointed enough to put the book down, and the ones who are on the lookout for just this sort of thing will completely bypass the novel. What were they thinking? 😐

  • Ali
    February 16, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Such an interesting review. There’s so much about this book that makes me want to read it, and yet I think the fantasy element would throw me off completely.

  • KMont
    February 18, 2013 at 7:30 am

    I completely agree with this joint review and had been waiting for a short while to see what you two thought of it. The cover blurb was rather infuriating, the world building lackluster and…yeah, what you two said. I wasn’t exactly happy with the main character’s arc either though because of the dancing around the intersex-ness by the main character till the very end. There were people that Micah had become very close to, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the story would’ve been stronger had the secret been revealed to them sooner.And it didn’t really endear Micah to me, either.

    I agree, Thea, that the secret of Micah’s gender wasn’t so much a twist to reveal to readers, but I was disappointed in how its revealed to other characters in the novel. Those times just didn’t seem to do much for the story. I dunno, so much awkwardness in this book when, given the intersex of the main character, I’d hoped for something more tightly written and other aspects better fleshed out.

  • Gina@My Precious
    February 22, 2013 at 1:19 am

    I adored this book and I have been saying from the get go that I didn’t think the author intended it to be a “twist” that Gene and Micah were one. I figured it out almost as soon as I started reading it. If you read the book carefully, its totally present from almost the first chapter. I’m glad someone else finally agrees with me, that it was so easy to quickly figure out with all the clues dropped. I do find it odd the blurb is so misleading and totally agree with all that’s been said above. Great analysis and reviews!

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