After being caught eavesdropping—not to mention trespassing—on the grounds of R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic, sixteen-year-old Micah Grey shows no fear. Because of that, the moment turns into an impromptu audition, and the daring gamble pays off: one of the aerialists is due to retire soon, so Micah is hired on to train as his replacement.
Like most of the other performers, Micah has more than a few secrets. And the biggest secret of all is also the most dangerous: if anyone at the circus discovers the real truth about Micah, training for the aerial show will end, and a new life with the folks in the freakshow will begin.
I loved Pantomime. There are awesome descriptions of the circus, both the magic of the performances—you can hear the hush and roar of the crowd—and the more gritty intrigue of the behind-the-scenes culture. The world-building works on every level I can think of: Micah's personal history, the microcosm of the circus, and the broader history of the world. There are even different versions of history depending on the perspective said history is coming from, which just adds to the rich, detailed vision of the world.
The upper-crust of Micah's culture lives according to vaguely-Regency era rules and traditions, but the social structure plays out in ways more complicated than who bows to whom and whose title is passed on where. (For instance, the last name of Lord Holly's illegitimate half-brother is Hollybranch. Love that.) There are stories of long-lost ancient races, mentions of different languages and cultures, and each chapter begins with an excerpt from a piece of writing in the world—poetry, encyclopedia articles, newspaper reports, medical research, scientific treatises, anthropological essays, etc.—all of which serve to put Micah's story in a broader context.
Lam alternates the action in the present with occasional flashbacks, which make the story and the characterization ever more complex and layered. Micah's narrative voice is super—a little bit overly fond of the word 'exotic', maybe—honest, sensitive, insightful, brave, observant, and curious. Much of this story is about control and identity and acceptance—about the desire to make one's own choices, about the search to discover who (and even what) you are, about finding people who don't want to squash you into a box, people who love you as you are—and all of those threads are likely to resonate strongly with the YA audience.
It works on an emotional level, too, though my connection and attachment grew so slowly that I almost didn't notice it happening. By the time that Micah's hugely courageous Moment of Truth came, I was so invested in that I cried. Not because the moment itself was sad, but because it was such a moment of excruciating, terrifying vulnerability.
There was only one false note in the entire book, but it's a huge spoiler, so I'm not going to go into the details. Basically, it felt less like A Thing That Just Happened, and more a way of A) tying up a loose end and B) setting the stage for the major conflict of the second book in the series. That issue aside, though, WOW. Book Two can't get here fast enough.
Book source: Review copy via Netgalley.