First things first, the back cover is nothing but blatant lies. It lies to the reader about the book’s entire premise, which is made clear in the very first chapters. Pantomime is not fantasy romance, it’s fantasy with an intersex protagonist. This is not a spoiler, by the way, it’s kind of the point of the whole book. Treating it as a spoiler is the equivalent of trying to talk about the Harry Potter books without saying that Harry has magic.
Here’s what the back cover blurb says:
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.
Tell me that it doesn’t read like your typical, run-of-the-mill YA romance where a tomboyish girl meets a plucky street boy and they’re destined to save the world and fall in love and blah blah blah… To be honest I don’t even remember why I added this book to my to-read pile because it sounded so bland, and I was slightly horrified when Isa told me to read it for Pick-For-Me. So imagine my surprise when, oh, around chapter two maybe, it becomes clear that Gene and Micah are the same fucking person, and they are intersex. Also, they might have magic. I’m really pissed at what feels like a marketing attempt to straightwash the back cover blurb to make it sound more mainstream. It’s a cheap trick, the people who would recoil in horror by reading a honest blurb of this book will still recoil in horror after reading a few pages, and the people who might be interested in reading this book won’t pick it up unless they already know what it’s about. And, if it really was just an honest attempt to keep the book’s “secret” for a couple more chapters, there were better ways of doing it than pretending that Gene and Micah were two different people.
So let’s scrap the stupid blurb and start again. Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, has been raised as the daughter of a noble family but feels uncomfortable wearing dresses and attending debutante balls. Though, really, the real reason Gene is uncomfortable is the endless series of doctor visits that have gone on since childhood, because the parents want to “fix her condition” so Gene can be married off. When it becomes too much too bear Gene runs away from home and, dressed as a boy and using the new name of Micah Grey, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice. The story alternates between spring, when Gene was still living with their family, and summer, with Micah living in the circus.
As a protagonist, Gene/Micah is adorable. The author has done a wonderful job with their character arc, making them a complex and interesting character, and also one that is easy to relate to as they struggle to find acceptance and their own identity. I thought (from a cis, straight viewpoint) that the issue of Micah’s intersexuality was handled very well: Micah is so much more than what’s between their legs. Gender is also treated as something unrelated to the body one is born in, and really the reason I’m sticking with neutral pronouns is that Micah wonders several times “am I a girl or a boy?” and never comes to a conclusion. I’m already side-eyeing the description of the second book because it uses male pronouns, it could be that Micah ends up deciding that they’re a boy, but until that happens, choosing to wear pants does not mean choosing to be a boy. Plus, Micah never falls into any stereotypically male or female behaviour: as Gene they like to wear their brother’s clothes and go climbing, but as Micah they decide that wearing dresses is nice once in a while.
I liked Micah’s determination and subtle kickassery. And I loved that they weren’t above asking for help when they needed it. I liked that they were trying to get by without letting other people know how sheltered they’d been in their life, and it didn’t always work, but bit by bit they got better at disguising their origins. They felt like a realistic teenager, flawed but very relatable. I smiled when the old man told them “you might think you know everything but in ten years you’ll look back on your past self and laugh at how silly you’ve been” because Micah’s dismissal was spot-on. There was sort of a triangle going on, but it was tolerable, little more than an offhand mention when Micah realizes that she might like boys and girls. The romance was actually rather sweet, less like instant epic love and more like friendship with kissing. I liked the chapter where Micah took their date to the museum.
Also because that chapter hints about maaagic. Don’t forget about the magic. Micah might have magic and there’s the mysterious Penglass buildings, and the Phantom Damselfly that we never get a real explanation about… (By the way, the cover seemed a bit random but that’s actually a dragonfly on the mask, so it makes more sense that I thought.)
The negatives are mostly of a technical nature. I felt that the book could have used another round of editing. It wasn’t badly written, but several sentences were awkwardly phrased — or even had a case of “that word doesn’t mean what you think it does”. The pace was also somewhat lacking. The first few chapters jump back and forth on the night Gene/Micah joins the circus and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. Then, it almost becomes too linear, alternating between one Gene chapter and one Micah chapter. After a while, towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that Gene is about to run away and join the circus like we saw at the beginning of the book. But still Gene’s story continues, explaining in detail where they went and what they did until the very second that they saw the circus tent and decided to walk inside… yawn. I just skimmed two or three chapters because they told me absolutely nothing new.
Between Gene’s story and Micah’s story, I thought Gene’s was the most interesting. I felt like the characters surrounding Gene (their brother Cyril, their parents, their best friend Anna, even the maid) were more fleshed out. The circus had maybe two dozen characters but they felt kind of flat and aside from a couple of main characters the rest all faded in the background. Is it Tym the animal trainer and Tin the dwarf? Or the other way round? It doesn’t matter, they only show up in a couple of scenes each… And the description of the circus numbers (especially the titular pantomime at the end) also dragged on for longer than it ought to. To borrow from the circus theme, it felt like a background of painted canvas. It tries to dazzle you with all the details, but if you look closer there is no substance at all, no depth.
The way the pantomime was described, scene by scene, I kept expecting that something big would happen onstage. But it doesn’t. Again, I ended up skimming. It would have been much better to simply outline a few key scenes of the pantomime and the circus, the ones Micah was in, and describe the rest in a few words. As it is, it felt to me as if the author got so wrapped up in the circus imagery that she forgot she had a story to tell. The “resolution” of the plot is left to the very last chapters, and I use the term very loosely: everything happens rather abruptly and, in true first-book-in-a-YA-series fashion, almost everything is left hanging.