Recent Reading: PANTOMIME by Laura Lam: comments with four questions, but no spoilers

So, first, what do you think of this cover? I’ve seen a few comments around and about from people who hate it. This seems weird to me. I LOVE this cover. How about you?

Okay, here’s a link to The Book Smuggler’s review. Do not click through to read it unless you are okay with major spoilers, right?

Now, the reason The Book Smugglers were okay with writing a review with a big reveal front and center, which they usually avoid, is that in their opinion, the plot twist comes early enough in the book that they aren’t going to mess up your reading experience by putting it in. Or, what seems likely to me is that they simply really, really wanted to discuss this aspect of the book. Which, yeah, I get that! I want to discuss this plot twist too, but but I’m not going to, at least not directly. So talking about this book is going to be a challenge! But I’m going to try.

Okay, both Thea and Ana were disturbed by the extremely misleading back cover copy of the book. Just how misleading is it? IT IS VERY VERY MISLEADING. Now, I know firsthand that sometimes the back cover copy can be written before the actual book, for advertising purposes, and then you can sure get some misleading ideas from the back cover because the author totally changes her mind about where the plot is actually going. You can see this in the third Griffin Mage book,if you want to go compare the back cover copy with the actual plot.

Or, a different issue, the back cover copy can wind up misleading because the publisher feels that it’s just too hard to boil the complexity of the plot down into the space available on the back cover, and therefore writes something more-or-less-kinda relevant that really does not accurately reflect the plot, but is felt to potentially appeal to readers. You can see a good example of this kind of misleading back cover copy on the back cover of HOUSE OF SHADOWS, as you may recall. I can assure you that many readers did not like this. (Plenty of others didn’t care.)

OR, a DIFFERENT issue, the publisher may deliberately write very misleading back cover copy because they are trying to conceal a major, major plot element. That is the case in PANTOMIME, no question about it. Here is the back cover copy for PANTOMIME:

R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

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.

That sure implies that a romance is going to develop between Gene and Micah, doesn’t it? Or maybe, as Thea points out, that they are going to turn out to be siblings. (I was betting on romance, but I can see how you could interpret it the other way). I will provide this much of a spoiler: no. Neither.

So, first question: in general, how bothered are you by a misleading back cover? A deliberately misleading back cover? Here’s the first comment on The Book Smugglers’ post, cropped to avoid spoilers: “Thank you soooo much for this review. I’m very glad to hear I was not the only reader who took issue with the deceptive description. OMG did it offend me…”

On the other hand, my personal answer to this question is: not very. I don’t expect much of the back cover, really. I’ve been burned too many times by SFBC descriptions, which have coaxed me to buy books that I turn out to really dislike — whether or not the back cover is accurate or not. Those SFBC people, they can really write good back covers! :(

These days, I buy books by authors I don’t know almost exclusively because I read a review by someone I trust, or because I read the first couple of pages, but basically never because of the back cover copy.

Second question: How bothered are you by a back cover deliberately written to disguise a major plot element? Thea and Ana found this problematical because of the kind of plot element being disguised. I don’t know. I can see it either way. To me, it seems that a reader might really get a kick out of coming to this plot reveal unspoiled. I can see it going either way. It’s true that the book might appeal to quite different segments of the readership depending on whether the readers are told up front about this aspect of the book.

Just how obvious IS this plot element to the naive reader who hasn’t been reading reviews? Ana and Thea think it is “very clear from the get go.” I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I read their review before reading the book, and so I was paying attention, and I can tell you: this plot element is made explicit on page 91. This does not count as the beginning of the book, in my opinion.

How early should an astute reader pick up on this plot twist? The FIRST PART of the plot twist should, in my opinion, be obvious the very first moment Gene is introduced, on page 43. That does count as the beginning, since it’s Gene’s very first scene. The SECOND, and more important part, of the plot twist, is in my opinion NOT obvious until page 91 — unless the reader already knows it’s coming.

Second question, part b: how much does it bother you to know about major plot twists ahead of time? It doesn’t bother me very much — usually — because the details of how we get there are more important to me than where we’re going. In this case, I honestly can’t tell whether I would have been surprised / enjoyed the book more if I’d read it before reading The Book Smugglers review. Unfortunately, no replay button for this one. If any of you reads this book cold, let me know what you think, okay?

Issues of structure and pacing: Thea says, “I like the alternating style of the book and the way the novel builds to join the two storylines, as we finally learn why Gene runs away from home and becomes Micah. It is a horrific, heartbreaking reveal and I think done very well. That said…the two storylines drag out a little bit too long (Gene’s in particular), and there is some clunkiness when it comes to the integration of the two, especially where the fantasy elements are concerned. Similarly, the frenetic ending of the book after such a long slow overlapping series of alternating chapters feels…abrupt. Similarly, the setting of the circus is really well done, but it’s kind of tired – a magical circus, capturing the wonder of all who enter, has been done, and done, and done.”

Similarly, Ana says, “For most of the book … I felt that the book was going nowhere. There is a world building that seemed interesting – with the long-forgotten magic and different mythologies – but barely touched upon to the point where it makes Pantomime read like a prequel, and this feeling becomes stronger upon the novel’s cliff-hanger ending. There is a question of pacing as well, very slow chapters leading to a monumentally hectic ending.”

Now, I have discovered over the past few years that I seem to be way, way out on one end of the curve on my perception of pacing. I LIKE a slow book. I loved DRAGONHAVEN by Robin McKinley, for example, and my own agent rolled her eyes at its slow pace. But I like a slow buildup. I like a slow denoument, too. I mean, I guess there are limits, and in fact the writing has to be extremely good or I will get bored. But I’ll get bored with a fast-paced book, too, if the writing isn’t up to par. So you’ll have to take my perception of PANTOMIME with a grain of salt. But for what it’s worth: I liked the pacing, mostly. I didn’t care especially where the story was going, since it’s really a character study and not a plot-driven story. And I didn’t notice any clunkiness with the way the two storylines are interwoven. However, I definitely agree: the ending is frenetic, and it certainly makes it very clear that this book is the first in a series, not a standalone. Personally, I would like a warning for any book of a cliffhanger-esque endings, since I seldom choose to read the first book of a series until the whole series is out.

Third question: If you’re reading a novel that is really a character study, does pacing matter to you? I mean, do you want a vibrant adventure as well as a character story? The reason I loved DRAGONHAVEN was the flawless voice of the protagonist; it had almost nothing to do with the plot.

And question four: Just curious, but do you find that circuses have been done to death in YA? Because I have thought and thought about it, after reading that line of Thea’s review, and frankly I can’t think of ANY circuses in YA fantasy. Or adult fantasy. Is this really a big thing and I’ve missed it? That’s certainly possible. Or is this a thing only to someone in the book biz who might be more aware of trends than normal readers? That seems possible to me, too. What do you all think?

Okay, there is so much more I can’t get at, even obliquely, which is frustrating. So I’ll just end by saying that I think Ana and Thea address real concerns, but may discount the value of the potentially surprising plot twist to the reader, possibly because they might find practical marketing concerns raise by the deceptive back cover copy more important.

Also, I expect you may well now be wondering whether to read PANTOMIME yourself so you, too, can have an informed opinion about all this stuff I’m not quite talking about. Great! Let me know what you think of the book. I will say, in the interests of not raising unreasonable expectation, I did not really fall in love with the main protagonist or the world. To me, the actual writing seemed cumbersome and predictable in some ways. But, let me just add, The Book Smugglers loved those aspects of the book, and my reaction may not have been quite fair, as I am still upset about Kenya losing all but one puppy (AGAIN) and the various repercussions therefrom, and besides the puppy is actually not gaining weight the way I think she should, so I am fairly distracted. It would have been tough for ANY book to really grab me, just now.

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6 thoughts on “Recent Reading: PANTOMIME by Laura Lam: comments with four questions, but no spoilers”

  1. I love the Book Smugglers and really appreciate that even when I disagree with their ultimate reading of a book, 90% of the time I can see why they read it that way and respect their process. However, I have noticed that there are a few specific issues where they tend to be less than kind to a book based on something other than the text–whitewashed covers, for example. It’s not that I think talking about these things is bad–on the contrary, I think it’s extremely important and necessary. But I wish that, especially with things outside the author’s control, they were pulled out of the review itself and given their own post.

    I realize that copy influences reading, especially in an egregious example like PANTOMIME where expectations for how a book is going to unfold are set up and particular issues seem erased or elided. But I’m not sure that this is in and of itself a necessarily offensive thing in the way the Book Smugglers review suggests. I’m probably not the right person to speak about this specific issue since I’m not as well educated as I’d like to be, and I’m in a position of privilege on this one. I did feel, however, that the original review was assigning motive to the publishers in a way I found frustrating.

    And I haven’t trusted back copy since I read THE CHILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE at 11, and then read the back cover and literally did not recognize the book I had just read.

  2. 1. Some: if the plot isn’t the same I’ll mostly shrug or laugh; if the tone or genre is different from what I was lead to believe, I’ll be more irritated.

    2. Not sure. Maybe it would depend on the plot element being concealed?

    3. I’m a lot less likely to read a character study than you, but if I do, I’m a lot more forgiving about pacing than I normally would be.

    4. I don’t read much YA. The only one set in a circus I can think of offhand is this one
    (maybe MG) from the library copy I read ages ago.

  3. I don’t bother much with back cover copy anymore. I know it’s marketing. These days I go by reviews or word of mouth or knowing the author. I wouldn’t downgrade a read JUST because of back cover copy (or front flap copy) unless it set up expectations so strongly that I misread the book.

    The cover is eye catching but otherwise doesn’t do anything for me.

    I don’t care much about plot twists, and as an incurable skipper around in books spoilers don’t bother me at all. I don’t understood people who ARE bothered.

    Pacing matters. I didn’t like DRAGONHAVEN, but it wasn’t the pacing, it was the one-note-voice that bugged me. It wasn’t JUST the teen boy voice, it’s the way I remember it as being all flat, no highs or lows – monotonous. But the teenage aspect retroactively started to bug me when I got to the end and found out he was telling it from the vantage of some years past the events.

    i know I’ve seen books that appear to have circus settings recently, but I’ve only read one, and that one I’d guess was categorized MG. I can remember lots about it: circus, John Henry’s Hammer, a dandelion man/fairy, a mermaid or siren, … but I can’t pull the title out of my memory and the library website is fighting back, too. Oh, and the second AGATHA H novelization (from comics). However, going back at least as far as Leigh Brackett with ‘the Haflbreed’ circuses have been used. The library offers: CIRCUS OF DR. LAO, NIGHT CIRCUS, BEASTMASTER’s CIRCUS, CIRCUS OF SINS, MECHANIQUE, a CIRCUS TRESAULTI Tale….. And that’s just a smattering of the hits.

    And FWIW, I downloaded the sample when you mentioned it a few days ago, and wasn’t interested enough to finish the sample. There wasn’t anything exactly wrong, it just wasn’t grabbing me. If I’d known the twist I don’t think it would have helped.

  4. Personally, I love slowly paced novels that concentrate on character development. If the characters are convincing enough, I don’t care if the actual plot is less than riveting.

    Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS and Genevieve Valentine’s MECHANIQUE: A TALE OF THE CIRCUS TRESAULTI both made quite a splash in the fantasy community a year or so back. Then Ekaterina Sedia edited an anthology called CIRCUS: FANTASY UNDER THE BIG TOP so I’d say that there is a bit of a recent circus trend in fantasy literature.

  5. I do remember hearing about THE NIGHT CIRCUS. I suppose that anybody who happened to have read the right handful of circus titiles might have the impression that circuses were A Thing. Still seems overstated to me, to say that circuses are now passe, though.

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