Author: Laura Lam
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, LGBT
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
A modified blurb (borrowed from The Book Smugglers):
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 teen, 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.
Why I read it: A month ago, I’d never heard of this book. Then I noticed it being talked about repeatedly – reviews of the book, reviews of its sequel, discussions on its straightwashed blurb (more on that later) – and bam, my curiosity was piqued. Plus I always want to support the authors who are queering up my favourite genre :D
My thoughts:So the first thing I did after finishing this book was go straight to Amazon and download the next one. I think that says something about how much I liked it.
The main character is a boy called Micah – a bisexual & intersex lad raised as a lady. (I suppose it’s more accurate to say he identifies as genderqueer rather than male, but I’m using male pronouns for this review.) Pantomime is basically his coming-out story. It follows Micah as he abandons the luxurious world of a noble debutant and careens into the freewheeling life of a circus performer – and honestly, it’s a very fun ride. While Micah does spend a lot of this book lying through his teeth and fearing discovery, he also seems at home at the circus; it suits his reckless & independent side, and of course there’s love on the horizon.
This is a low-magic world, and at times it feels like the fantasy realm Lam has created is little more than window-dressing for Micah’s story. We hear mentions of mysterious domes of penglass littering the landscape, and of expensive vestige artefacts capable of creating illusions. However, these are primarily curios that nobody understands or can fix when broken. The only hint of real magic seems connected to Micah which – along with some odd stories about the intersex gods of old – suggests that Micah’s identity might come complete with magic powers. I’ve read quite a few reviews that rail against this idea, but personally I like it. Without the magic, this book is little more than a queer coming-of-age. There’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve just seen it before. A lot. (Pretty sure I read every single YA LGBTI novel available at the library back in the day.) But this is a fantasy book. Why not tie the sex of the main character to their budding magical ability? Wheel of Time did it (with male & female strains of magic). Possibly other books have done too. So I don't see why linking magic to intersexuality should be any different.
I also liked the circus aspect of the story. How could I not? Trapeze artists are awesome. Micah also acknowledges the dismal lives of the animals early on, which I appreciated. At times, the whole thing reminded me of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (although this is possibly because my brain went preforming arts + queers + 19th century chaos and came up with the closest match, rather than any real similarity between the two novels). I did want more magic & noble politics, but I’m assuming that will come to the fore in book two. Fingers crossed, anyway.
There isn’t much else I can say about this one. It was a fun, short read – definitely recommended.
Also, a couple of thoughts on the blurb:Laura Lam has stated (on Goodreads, in response to a question I posted) that she didn’t expect Micah’s gender identity to be a spoiler, and that she’d happily describe him as intersex for potential readers.
So the problem was really with Strange Chemistry's marketing team. I don’t understand their decision at all - it doesn't make any sense. The entire plot of this novel is basically about Micah’s quest to control is own life and his eventual coming-out. It has fantasy elements, but they’re minimal. Obscuring the LGBTI content means this book will be a lot harder for queer teenagers to find, and I imagine a lot of queer kids would really want to read this book. As for straight readers… well, the majority of homophobic folks are older, not younger. I seriously doubt this would turn off its intended audience. So... why bother?