by Laura Lam
Strange Chemistry: an imprint of Angry Robot Books (2013)
One backdrop for a story that has a good track record in my opinoin is the carnival. So when I found out Laura Lam's debut novel entailed a child running away to join the circus, I figured I ought to check it out. Add in the fact it was published by an imprint of Angry Robot, a publisher with a darned good reputation for putting out quality novels, and I made it a point to check this book out.
Gene is really Iphigenia, and she is a runaway. And while she didn't mean to, she finds herself under the employ of R.H. Ragona's Circus of Magic as an aerialist disguised as a boy named Micah. The other performers are cold and unwelcoming at first, but she is eventually befriended by a couple of sympathetic souls, including a charming clown and an endearing high-wire duo. But as she learns the ropes--quite literally in her own attempts to learn the high-wire--she drags her past with her like Dickensian chains that threaten to bring her down at any moment.
It's through flashbacks in the months and weeks before she ran away from home that it gradually becomes clear what kind of life Gene has left behind, and worse, the stakes she faces should her family ever finds her.
The world Laura Lam has created with this novel is remarkable in scale, while the story stays keenly focused on Gene's journey. Beyond her days training under the big top and doing chores around the carnival grounds, the only real glimpses of this city known as Imachara come from the flashbacks. There's a strange state the world is in with this material known as penglass that I never managed to wrap my head around, though the imagery was fascinating at times.
I was unaware at the time I prepared to review this book, but apparently there was some hush-hush attitudes towards the whole Gene is Micah thing. I'd hardly consider it a spoiler to divulge Micah is really Gene in boy's clothes, since it was readily apparent to me that was the case within the first two chapters of the book. The book does hold a couple interesting twists beyond that, however, and I would definitely spoil things to elaborate further than that.
Pantomime plays out as a wonderful introduction to a conflicted and likeable character in Gene/Micah, even introducing an actual pantomime element midway through the story to create even more drama, as she tries to forge a new path for herself. There were parts of the story I found irksome though, particularly when it comes to certain matters requiring resolutions and failing to do so. If Pantomime is but the first in a series of some sort, then that's certainly forgivable, but by the end of the book I had the unfortunate reaction of: Really? You're ending it here? Like this?
Certainly recommended for fans of YA fantasy, and the circus, but be ready to be left wanting more.