Shadowhawk reviews another debut novel from the folks at Strange Chemistry, Angry Robot’s new YA imprint.
“This book has the magical quality that I remember from the Enid Blyton books I read as a child. This means, of course, that this book totally rocked.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ll be straight up honest about this one: I haven’t read a novel like this in a long time. The statement above lays it out perfectly. Pantomime is the third novel from Strange Chemistry that I’ve read this year, and so far, it is definitely the best. What’s remarkable about the novel is how engaging it is, and how complex without ever bluntly giving away that fact. Magic does play a role in the narrative but only where it’s effects and consequences are concerned; it is a power that is very much always in the background, as the characters are always in prominence.
I put off reading this book for a long time. The cover art was certainly interesting, but it didn’t exactly appeal to me, and neither did the synopsis. I kept wondering what I’d find exciting in a novel about a boy who becomes an aerialist in a circus and a girl who ran away from home. I’ve seen a few circus shows as a kid, but that was quite rare and very infrequent. I barely remember any of it, other than the fact that there used to be an Indian TV show called “Circus” that I enjoyed very much when I was growing up.
And then the reviews for the book started flowing in. Bloggers, such as TFF’s own Bane of Kings, spoke very highly of Pantomime, and they kept on about it. So I ended up reconsidering and picking up the book. The opening pages are somewhat disorienting and confusing, but the novel picks up speed very quick, and after that it’s a thrilling train ride through a very magical world that actually keeps that aspect of it hidden.
So… what really makes Pantomime stand out so much? It’s definitely the characters.
The novel is divided into two separate perspectives: one is for the young aspiring aerialist Micah Grey, the other is for the runaway young debutante Iphigenia Laurus (Gene for short). Micah’s narrative is set in the present while for Gene it is from a few weeks before. How these two narratives intertwine and support each other was one of the best reveals of the book, coming as early as it did in chapter 5, something I definitely was not expecting. I’ll admit that this reveal was one of the things that made me sit up and take notice of the novel; it got me to take the novel seriously. Pantomime is about how these two kids essentially “grow” up and how they both face the challenges that are thrown their way, whether it is the entire circus crew in the case of Micah as most of them play pranks on him and in general give him a really rough time, or the whole “learning how to act and behave like a lady of stature” as in the case of Gene. Micah has just begun an exciting new life, while Gene is decidedly unhappy about hers and is always searching for a way out, which she gets, albeit not in the way she had ever anticipated.
Then there are Arik and Aenea, the circus’ resident aerialists. Other than the clown Drystan and circus manager Bil’s wife Frit, they are the only ones to befriend Micah and to treat him with respect and kindness. Of course, Aenea being as young as she is, she does fall in love with Micah and their romance is something that is really exciting to read. It’s not the fawny, head-over-heels type of romance, but something that is much more… mature, so to speak. Lam eases them both into their relationship and she portrays it as something very special and very… well, romantic. And I liked that. Arik acts more like a father and mentor to both Micah and Aenea, and I’d say that he is one of the characters in the novel who is quite pivotal to the events later on.
Gene’s brother Cyril and their various acquaintances in the high society that they are part are also a really good bunch of characters. Their interactions with Gene, whether positive or negative, end up having some big consequences for how she feels, and how she develops. The ramifications are even bigger when contextualised by events in the second half of the novel. These relationships provide a solid impetus for these events and they help to flesh out Gene’s character all the more.
Pantomime has some rough patches early on in terms of pacing, but the novel gets better as the page numbers get higher. There are a few instances where the narrative moves at a frustratingly slow pace, almost to the edge of boredom, but overall, the pacing turns out to be quite good. More so given the differing points of view of Micah and Gene.
As I’ve said, magic in this novel is mostly always in the background. There is a technology called Vestige, which is the last remnant of an older, extinct culture of the world of Ellada, and this is the type that is wondrous and awe-inspiring and beautiful at the same time. Micah and Gene both run into Vestige at different times, and they are both deeply affected by their experiences. The whole concept isn’t one that is unique, but taken within the context of Pantomime, it very well might be. Whenever it came up, I always wanted to read more about it. Which is why I’m hoping that Lam dwells on this more in the sequel. Then there’s the magic of the atmosphere that she has created. This magic holds up more for Micah’s narrative than it does for Gene’s however, given that Micah works in a circus and it truly is a magical place, home to horned humans and clowns and death-defying aerialists and some… freaks, among others. Whenever the scene is set during one of the circus shows, the excitement always ratchets up to a new level. I can say that I was always lost in those scenes. You can very well feel the magic of the various performances.
In Pantomime, Laura Lam has created a wonderfully complex world, filled with some really rich and fun characters that are a treat to read. This is definitely a winner for Strange Chemistry, as far as I’m concerned!