Lately, I’ve been on a young-adult-books-featuring-LGBTQ+-protagonists kick. Pantomime by Laura Lam, which came out two years ago, was on the outskirts of my radar for a while, because how often do you find a fantasy novel about a bisexual intersex transgender teen? Pantomime was definitely the first for me. It surprised me quite pleasantly with the inclusion of many other queer characters in a rather fascinating world, despite the fact that both the LGBTQ+ representation and the worldbuilding leave a little something to be desired at the end. But Pantomime is the first book in a trilogy, so here’s hoping that some of the potential will still be realized. Spoilers after the jump!
The story is set in a different world, in a country called Ellada, which once was full of magic. It is told from a dual perspective of sorts—alternating chapters are about as far as we know, a girl called Gene’s life slightly in the past (spring) and about a boy called Micah in the present (summer). Gene was born with both male and female sexual characteristics and struggles with parents who want to fix their “condition” (the word intersex is not used in the book). Gene is also being raised as a girl when they don’t feel like one, or at least don’t like girly things, and prefer to go outside and climb trees and buildings. Meanwhile, teenage runaway Micah joins the circus and begins training as an acrobat.
But Gene and Micah are actually the same person, despite the slightly confusing narrative choice and the fact that the blurb on the back cover talks about them as though they are two people. It’s not even a spoiler to tell you this, because hints are dropped and similarities between Gene and Micah are established from the get-go and it’s revealed explicitly about fifty pages into the book without any fanfare, suggesting that the reader was supposed to know this already. I had read reviews and knew what was up beforehand, but any casual reader picking up this book would be grossly misled, not to mention that people specifically looking for LGBTQ+ representation at a bookstore or library would likely pass this book by. Additionally, this feels as though the publishers are attempting to disguise the protagonist’s gender, sexuality and intersex status and treat them as dirty secrets to be revealed for shock value.
Now, that I’ve started on things that bug me in this book, there’s also the fact that the book is terribly slow. I would go as far as calling it one long prologue, because most of the book is the set-up, introducing us to the world and to the mysteries related to the main character. Also, we spend quite a lot of time in Micah’s head, so to speak, and they like to reflect on and analyze both themself and their surroundings. I didn’t mind this, but then, I’m the person who loves all the long-winded descriptions and annexes in Lord Of The Rings, so take this as you will. Most of the book focuses on Gene’s daily life: female gender roles they have to perform, many visits to various doctors, Gene’s relationships with their friends and their brother Cyril (which is the most beautifully crafted relationship in the book, in my opinion). In parallel, we read about Micah making their way in the circus, hiding their identity, enduring bullying and making friends with fellow acrobat Aenea and a clown named Drystan. Gene eventually runs away from home, upon finding out that their parents want to make them have an operation, which is where the two stories sort of meet and we find out how Gene became Micah. Finally, in the very end, a lot of things happen in a very quick succession and we’re left with a cliffhanger ending. Micah’s identity is found out by the circus owner Bil, which results in a fight, two deaths, and Micah & Drystan running away.
Despite all this, I actually enjoyed Pantomime (and intend to read the second installment, Shadowplay, ASAP). Micah’s introspection and the narrative alternating between past and present help create a nuanced and sensitive portrait of a teenager, as well as allowed us to see character growth. Micah deals with multiple identity problems, in addition to being different from most people in a way not accepted by either their family and the society (except their brother Cyril, who is awesome). But at the same time, Micah is just a teenager who gets crushes and wants to date (or, rather, court or be courted).
Also, I really appreciate that Micah and their male love interest Drystan aren’t the only LGBTQ+ characters in the book. In the circus, there are a few other queer characters, most notably Arik, who is Micah’s acrobat trainer. Additionally, the characters frankly discuss same-gender attraction and the possibility to be attracted to more than one gender; Micah also raises questions as to how their gender and sexuality are related:
“Does that happen often? Men preferring men to women?” I thought of my attraction to Aenea. Did I like her as a boy, or as girl?
“More often than you would think.”
“Do you… or they ever prefer both men and women?” I asked.
“Me?” he [Drystan] said, not letting me get away with my slip. “Sometimes, for a bit of variety. More sample both dishes than would probably admit to it.”
“In Ancient Alder, there were no different pronouns for gender. I think that in itself speaks volumes.”
The only disappointment here is that once again, non-binary gender identities have gone unmentioned, and it’s such a shame too, because while it’s been clearly established that Micah doesn’t like girly things and prefers boyish pastimes and boyish presentation, they don’t seem to fully identify with boys either and Laura Lam has confirmed on her blog that they are genderqueer. But even so, ever since I stopped taking the gender binary and gender roles as the default, I always enjoy when topics such as gender and sexuality are explored in fantasy settings. Unless it’s a world where all genders, gender alignments, and sexualities are treated equally/as a non-issue, it just makes sense that the queer characters would talk about it, and all too often, it’s something the authors skip over and we’re left to create our own headcanons.
As such, I also enjoyed all the subtle and less subtle ways Micah’s being trans and intersex is explored. It is revealed that they have both ovarian and testicular tissue. Micah binds their breasts, at first with bandages which chafe, but after a while they buy an undergarment specifically designed to bind breasts. They also unexpectedly get their period, which they have to hide from everyone. That being said, there’s a bit of mythology in the book, which features Kedi—intersex mythical creatures who were strong and powerful and who used to be worshiped as the only complete creature in existence. On one hand, it could be quite an empowering message. But on the other hand, it sets intersex people up as “other” in addition to making them mythical, when they actually exist in the real world.
You probably noticed that I haven’t talked much about the magical world of Pantomime; it’s because it’s largely irrelevant to the plot, so far, although there are some cool hints to the long-extinct magical civilization. It left behind a few artifacts and mysterious tower structures, to which Micah seems to have a magical connection/power. I hope we can find out more about it in Shadowplay.
All in all, I quite enjoyed Pantomime, as a set-up/introduction to the world of Micah Grey. It perhaps has more potential than I realized, but Micah’s story has only just started. And despite a few problems here and there, it has some excellent LGBTQ+ representation, including the complex and nuanced protagonist Micah. If you’re looking for a fantasy novel with a queer protagonist and don’t mind a slow plot, I can wholeheartedly recommend Pantomime.
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