Masquerade, by Laura Lam [Micah Grey #3]

Title: Masquerade (Micah Grey #3)
Author: Laura Lam
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication date: 9th March 2017
Rating: ★★★★

23279496It’s been a long wait between Shadowplay and Masquerade, and there were times when it seemed it would never come, short of Laura Lam electing to self-pub and/or kickstart the third and final Micah Grey novel. Thankfully, Lam’s publisher, also responsible for publishing the fantastic futuristic sci-fi thriller False Hearts swooped in and seized the entire trilogy, meaning that Micah was coming home.

And what a homecoming. Masquerade is a fast-paced and exciting story, full of mystery and heart, from the second we’re taken back to Ellada.

I was worried about the amount of time that had passed, having expected to forget absolutely everything, and since I do not have the ability to re-read books, it was a genuine concern that part of my enjoyment might be diminished by “what is happening? Who are these people?” and “I have no memory of this place!”. There were things I’d partially forgotten, but the way Lam both opened Masquerade and weaved the story, any of those gaps were very easily filled, with my memory being jogged where relevant and not once did I feel I was reading something I only half connected with, in spite of the huge gap and subsequent gaps in what I remembered. It felt every bit the same as having waited a year or so between books, with no clumsy dumps of exposition or info.

And the wait was worth it.

After the circus and then the magic contest with the Masque of Magic, things seem to be looking up for Micah. Except that at the close of Shadowplay, to sour the success, Micah fell suddenly ill and it seemed related to his burgeoning abilities as a chimera. Luckily, soon Micah is well (but for how long?), but at the cost of trusting someone he never wanted to see again. The Royal Physician is someone Micah would rather steer clear from, and with good reason, following the man’s employment of a Shadow to report their actions and whereabouts during the magic contest, even sending someone to get close to Masque in order to glean all the info he could. Yet Micah doesn’t have much choice and his treatment at the hands of the Royal Physician becomes regular affair–one he remains deeply mistrustful of.

Yet ridiculously, allowing Pozzi to treat him is soon the lesser of Micah’s worries, as tension grows within the city due to both the rumours of chimera and the politicking of the Foresters. The problem is: they have a point. For too many centuries, the noble families and the royal family have had much of the power and all of the privilege, whilst many in the country go hungry or find themselves in poverty. This dissent will not be eased without change, and yet when a particularly violent arm of the Foresters, calling themselves the Kashura in reference to the old histories and tales of the chimera and the Elder race, rises up and makes themselves known, the people of Ellada are caught between the need for change and the dislike for violence and bloodshed.

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Things will come to a head eventually and civil war may well be on the cards.

Meanwhile, Micah’s abilities seem to strengthen thanks to the treatment rendered by Pozzi and soon he is experiencing strange dreams that seem to show him the actions of another person as they go about their business in shadow. That business is body snatching. But without any notion of who is behind the actions or why, Micah and his friends are working blind. They’re not in this alone, aided by the mysterious Anisa, the Damselfly apparition from the Aleph who knows more than she says and who sometimes appears only to help them when it suits her best. None of them are entirely willing to trust her, but with their secrets held tightly to their chests, there are few around them who know the full truth and they must take whatever help they can get.

Matters become more complicated when hands behind the scenes begin to play their cards and Micah, Drystan and Cyan are pulled into things far more complicated and delicate than they could have imagined–and with the Foresters poised for action and change (one way or another) it looks as though things may come to a head sooner than anyone hoped.

One of the things that I’d been hoping for most with Masquerade was Micah’s confrontation with his parents, one way or another. I felt that given the storyline that led him from the noble house in the first place, there needed to be some manner of resolution given that Micah had returned to Imachara with a mind to stay and settle into his new life. This happened, in a way, and although there were elements of what I wanted to see, I felt disappointed in how Micah ultimately handled the situation. Which, really, is to say, I was disappointed in how easily Micah was able to set aside his anger and hurt regarding what his parents wanted for the daughter they believed they had. I think that any narrative from Micah suggesting that he understands what his parents were trying to do, and that he knew it came from a place of love, possibly suggests that Lam maybe hasn’t experienced strained relations with parents regarding queerness and acceptance. Micah loses his anger at his mother, understanding her “reasons” for wanting to fixing (or at least this was how it read to me) and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. Micah’s mother does not really, really, truly admit fault and she does not truly accept Micah–and therefore she deserved no quarter, no acknowledgement and no further consideration from Micah. It felt like Micah gave too much for the sake of resolution and that just didn’t sit well with me, considering how his mother both was and wasn’t–and how she’d been earlier in the trilogy.

Overall, Masquerade was just as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be, jumping effortlessly back into the same world we’d been forced to leave behind for so long. Every bit as exciting and compelling as its predecessors, Masquerade was a delight and being given such diverse characters with a q u e e r  r o m a n c e  as casually as any other never, ever, ever, ever gets old and it means every bit as much as it ever did. I very desperately want more of Micah and Drystan and still hold out hope for further Micah Grey novels that see him older, wiser and more established with his place in the world.

A wonderful end to the trilogy and almost everything I’d anticipated it would be.

False Hearts, by Laura Lam

Title: False Hearts
Author: Laura Lam
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 16th June 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

False-Hearts-UK-Cover (2)False Hearts, by Laura Lam, is an exciting sci-fi thriller that explores the ideas of brain-hacking, lucid dreaming and the deep, dark world of organised crime and corruption in a city that is perfect on the outside. Where flesh parlours are a five-minute ticket to a new appearance and neural implants allow for quick downloading of information directly to the brain, muscular implants regulate body mass and size, and everything from synthetic, hangover free alcohol to fully-prepared meals can be ordered from a replicator in your kitchen, San Francisco seems to be the perfect city, full of perfect people.

Since the introduction of Zeal lounges, allowing the user to plug directly into their own vast fantasies and participate as they play out, the crime rate has plummeted and the city has become a peaceful haven of happy people with sculpted smiles.

But not everyone gets the same kick out of Zeal; for some, the dreaming process of acting out hidden fantasies doesn’t produce the same effect. For formerly conjoined twins, Taema and Tila, raised outside of society in a secluded cult, Zeal does nothing. Maybe it’s because they were raised so differently, taught the word of Mana-Ma, the conduit for the Good Book and God’s word. But maybe it’s the fact that they can already both lucid dream thanks to their training in the cult of Mana’s Hearth and the fact that their brains simply work differently, lowering the pleasure of Zeal for both of them.

However, this fact makes Taema and Tila somewhat unique and very useful for those seeking to use Zeal for a darker purpose. Everyone knows about the Zealots; those who plug into Zeal and live out such dark fantasies that they are driven away from the monitored feeds in the legal, safe Zeal lounges and into the shady, grimy parlours of the city’s underbelly. Addicted to Zeal, unable to feel a connection with life outside their fantasies, they plug in for hours and hours at a time, eventually wasting away, their lives crumbling around them as they act out their darker sides away from the prying eyes of the rest of the city.

Taema has always been the sensible twin, the reserved twin. An engineer with a good job and bright future, she plays by all the rules. That is, until her sister comes home covered in blood, accused of a murder Taema knows her sister can’t possibly be capable of.

Or could she? The deeper Taema delves into her sister’s life, the more she realises that, since they left Mana’s Hearth, she barely knows her sister anymore. So many secrets and lies hang between them now and Taema is left in the dark. With her sister’s trial pending and the first murder in the city in decades being covered up, Taema is given a choice: become Tila and find out the truth or leave her sister to die.

Soon she finds herself undercover and in deep water as she tries to step into her sister’s very different shoes. With a partner to help her learn the ropes of being undercover, Taema brainloads new info every day, learning everything from the hierarchy of the city’s dark and dangerous mafia to martial combat techniques. As she slips further down the rabbit hole, losing herself more with each day spent pretending to be Tila, she discovers a deeper, darker truth at the heart of it all.

Whatever her sister was caught up in, it goes far further than she could ever have imagined, and in the end, it might feel as though they never really escaped the Hearth after all.

This book was thrilling in every sense of the word; exciting and vibrant and bursting with what felt like a genuine and accurate possible aesthetic of a future San Francisco. So many earthbound science fiction narratives can read far too much like our very own here and now, rendering the setting somewhat redundant as a supposed science fiction. False Hearts does not suffer from this at all, instead depicting a very visible future with all the usual instalments of such a setting, with thoughtful details that make a world feel less like a structure confined to the page, and more a living, real thing. Essentially the world that Lam creates in lieu of our own feels possible, as if we’re glimpsing the future instead of reading about an entirely fictional world. This, for me, is something of an essential part of a good futuristic earth.

False Hearts is a superbly-written and gripping thriller that plays out with almost startling movie-like clarity. It would translate to film like a dream come true. As is to be expected from Lam, the world she presents is not only racially diverse, but also sexually. Lo and behold and let the angels sing for a bisexual main character who neither coyly dances around the subject nor is revealed as not heterosexual outside of the actual story and by the author. No Dumbledore treatment here. Taema is bi and definitely interested in the possibility of dating women when the suggestion is presented. We even have a disabled boy. Heck, Taema and Tila themselves are formerly conjoined twins. And, as I’ve also come to expect from Lam, their status as such is not a part of the plot. It simply is. Just as Micah’s intersex biology was not a part of her Dark Circus series; it simply was just how Micah was.

It’s ludicrously refreshing to have an author remember that bisexuality, race and disability are a thing. As said, I’d expect nothing less with Lam. She’s a bright star in a sky dotted with samey science fiction that tries too hard to be edgy, potentially using both race and LGBT characters more as set-dressing than as characters who feature very prominently in the story.

I knew about False Hearts long before I read it, dating back to a handful of DMs where we both lamented the fact that her publisher (then, Strange Chemistry) would not be picking up the third Micah Grey book. She’d recently finished a draft of what became False Hearts, which her agent loved and we both crossed our fingers hoping it would be a breakout novel for her (and that her backlist would be picked up as well).

These things happened, and now, after years of anticipation, waiting whilst “Bonkers Book” was finished and edited and eventually sold, I got to read the novel the pitch of which made me giddy with excitement.

I wasn’t disappointed. False Hearts is a stunningly clever thriller that is sure to keep you reading well into the night. I can’t reiterate how much I love this book. Lam is a stellar author and with False Hearts she has stepped up her game. I can’t imagine how I’ll possibly wait patiently for the second book. I miss Taema already.

Shadowplay, by Laura Lam [Micah Grey #2]

Title:Shadowplay (Micah Grey #2)
Author:Laura Lam
Publisher:Strange Chemistry
Publication date:4th January 2014
Rating:★

5-star copyThis review will barely do justice to the book and its sheer excellence, because I am having to reign in my inner fanboy and go easy on the complete author love, here. There’s a lot of fanboy to contain, trust me. Shadowplay is the second of the Micah Grey books (and hell, I fear a revolt if there are not more!) and it not only continues on beautifully from where its predecessor Pantomime left off in taking us on a magical journey through a Victorian-esque world that could almost be ours, yet isn’t, revealing slowly and deliciously more and more and more about the history of Ellada and what bearing the deep past can have on the very near present, but it further reveals the heart and soul of Micah Grey, constantly resonating with themes of acceptance, confidence and identity.Shadowplay-Cover

With their lives in the circus in tatters, Micah and Drystan must flee, seeking refuge with the only person whom Drystan thinks he can trust in the whole of Imachara. The washed-up magician, Jasper Maske has not performed magic for years, due to an old grudge that was harshly settled all those years ago, whilst his rival flourishes on the stage with his grandsons, performing so many of the beloved tricks that Maske and his rival developed themselves when they worked together instead of against the other. But this has nothing to do with Micah and Drystan, who simply need to hide from the policiers and the accusations of murder that will follow them from the circus following the double murder that occurred.

Still nursing a broken heart, Micah’s spirits are shattered. Never mind that during the first night with Maske and during a séance he insists on holding, Micah has a vision that he simply cannot understand or fathom. It must have something to do with his being a special case, how the Penglass reacts to his touch and all the other small things that he has never really thought about until now—until he meets someone else like himself. Micah will soon discover just it is he might be and that he is definitely not alone.

Soon, magic and performance become Micah’s life and he finds that he hungered for show business after the circus life he had so carefully nurtured was torn from him so suddenly. Drystan and Micah become Maske’s assistants and begin to learn everything from this master of magic. Of course, the option to leave Imachara for good still hangs over their heads as they take refuge in Maske’s old and dusty Kymri theatre, hiding from the public eye wearing magical disguises and hoping not to be recognised somehow from their likenesses that have been circulating. Then, of course, there’s still the Shadow to think about.

Before Micah knows it, his heart and his head are in disarray: between visions and cryptic messages about what he is, all mixed together with blossoming feelings of love, Micah has a lot to think about. Not least of all the fact that a Chimera keeps telling him the world is going to end and he will have to save it. Only, he hasn’t really got a clue how and the world doesn’t seem in peril… unless you count the growing ire of the Foresters, who are rallying louder and louder against the Twelve Trees and the rigid, lofty monarchy of Imachara. With the Princess Royal only a child and her uncle pulling the strings from behind, there is a lot the Foresters have to complain about. But are they going about it the right way and will the actions of their charismatic leader have any bearing on the future of the world at large?

In Shadowplay Lam has created a platform onto which a deeper and far wider reaching plot will grow and spread, eclipsing any semblance of normality in Micah’s life, demonstrating that a book can be a success starting out as a slice-of-life story about one person and one person alone, and transform into something bigger in the blink of an eye. Stuff happens that we can’t always see, things that suddenly appear on the stage uninvited and unexpected. Lam captures perfectly sense of being swept up in something far bigger and far more complex than oneself, without the automatic urge to bend and be swept away. Micah has a level-headed approach to everything that happens around him and this creates a genuinely realistic character whose life is heading in one direction, his destiny in another. The two will meet eventually, but Micah will plot his own course as much as he can. And he does. Yet there is no sense of a “chosen one” despite the constant reiteration that Micah can save the world. Everything is about cause and effect and consequence, and moreover, evil and darkness behind the scenes. Protagonists have lives and do not spend all day peeking behind the black curtain at the back and sides to see if trouble will appear.

There is a great sense of real life in the Micah Grey books and it’s one of the things I love most about Lam and her writing, her world. Most of all, I love that Micah is Micah, with no compromises. The message this sends is necessary and powerful. Furthermore, Micah will discover that difference can be irrelevant. What you are does not automatically shape your identity; who you are is what matters.

Pantomime will always have a special place in my heart, but Shadowplay has outdone even that and presented a deliciously exciting story with so much meaning and mystery. Nothing is clear come the end of Shadowplay, save only that things are set to become very complicated. Lam’s focus on characters is absolutely perfect, with everything performed against the backdrop of a lost and confusing world glimpsed only through echoes of the past and dreams and visions, and a magic contest that the whole city will be watching. Vestige could be magic, it could be technology. There is so much we do not know; there is so much Micah does not know. This complete lack of reader omniscience is ideal for a story where the characters very much so come first.

Shadowplay is a gorgeously written novel with so big a heart the pages can barely contain it. There is scope and ambition and a very clear sense that Lam knows precisely what she’s doing; the perfect author-puppeteer behind Micah’s stage. There is a sense of rightness about how everything unfolds, as though Micah’s life is set on invisible tracks, heading towards a point in the distance that only Lam knows. Everything in Shadowplay is paced and presented just as it should be, with mystery and intrigue, romance and a deep hatred between old rivals.

In short: Lam is a genius, she writes beautifully and everything about this book was a complete and absolute pleasure. If you loved the circus, you’ll fall in love with the complex and fascinating world behind the stage of Shadowplay and the Kymri theatre Micah now calls home.

Pantomime, by Laura Lam [Micah Grey #1]

  • TITLE: Pantomime (Micah Grey #1)
  • AUTHOR: Laura Lam
  • PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 7th February 2013 (UK)

Whichever way you approach Laura Lam’s Pantomime, do so expecting to be surprised and drawn into a vast, rich world of lost magic and melancholy history. Even without the enchanting lure of the circus (am I the only one who finds circuses creepy? I’ll get my coat…) to dazzle and amaze, the flavour of Lam’s prose is delicate and delicious enough to do all the bedazzling, all by itself.

Set in a world that mirrors our own, with a strict focus on the English Victorian era, Pantomime invites readers to run away to the circus; to live under the big top and to experience life alongside its inhabitants.

Micah Grey is a young trainee aerialist, fresh to the circus and eager to learn. He hopes that amongst the hustle and bustle of the circus he can lose himself and find himself.

Iphigenia Laurus, a pampered and primped noble lady–if only she would allow such treatment: she prefers to ally herself with her brother and his friends, rather than fill her dowry chest with embroidery–is tired of a confining life, hiding who she is deep inside from those around her. She yearns for freedom and above all else, acceptance.

Within the pages of Pantomime their lives and purposes cross and they come to realise that they are inexorably bound to one another, whatever the cost. Each with their own trials and secrets and with a secret in their blood that might be the answer Ellada has been searching for, Gene and Micah both must tread carefully. The circus is fertile ground in which secrets can grow and take form, becoming far greater than ever imagined.

Pantomime is the kind of book I thought I’d never read because nobody would ever write it. It is a story about acceptance and belonging and about figuring out just who you are, who you can be, and just who you might be if you were only brave enough to take the first step. There is an openness regarding gender and sexuality that many YA fantasy stories lack and it is for that reason alone that Pantomime simply must be read. In many ways, Lam wrote a brave book that turns the mundanity of heteronormativity on its head and the story is all the richer for it.

It is a story that questions, seeks and strives and more YA books should do just the same thing. For all it is a story of acceptance and belonging, it is also a story of fear: the fear or rejection, the fear of choice and the lack of it, and the fear of oneself. Pantomime is a stunning example of how to go against the grain–and keep going no matter what. Its single, resoundingly simple message is: be true to yourself and only yourself.

Naturally this is harder than it sounds and Pantomime explores just that.

To be true to oneself, one must know oneself and that is often the most difficult thing of all, especially in the face of contradictions from within and without and the trails that face us. Effortlessly graceful and deliciously classy, as befitting the era, the setting and the structure of the story, Lam has set a bar for other YA authors to aspire towards.

And I’m not even kidding here. If all writers approached the same issues that Lam neatly and beautifully broaches, the pool of YA fantasy would be all the richer for it and horizons would be vastly broadened.

Pantomime is a gorgeous book that tells a gorgeous story. It’s exciting, rich and wonderful and its characters are expertly crafted. From sibling relationships to tense court relations, to the intimacy of the circus and blossoming attraction, Lam nails every nook and cranny of each and every character and personality.

A complete and stellar success, effortlessly achieving all it set out to accomplish, Pantomime is the YA fantasy novel that will set the standard for all that follows in 2013, getting the year off to an excellent beginning. There is so much to say, so many observations and commentaries that should arise from reading Pantomime that it should be considered as most of the most important YA commentaries on identity and belonging written within the genre. It’s a bold statement, I suppose, but I hold to it: Pantomime is a work of art, a psychological adventure into exploring the self, and a damn fun read to boot.

Utterly captivating and inviting, Pantomime sets the stage for Lam to emerge as a writer to watch.

5/5

[Cover Reveal] Laura Lam’s Pantomime, from Strange Chemistry

Today is cover release day for Laura Lam! We’ve had a few sneaky, teasing shots of the final artwork, but now the full cover has been revealed.

As we’ve come to expect from Strange Chemistry, the cover is a pretty little thing, a very sexy and delicious thing of beauty.

We’ve got a pretty red-head, twinkling circus lights before a shadowed crowd, and a splash of big top colour, all showing that Tom Bagshaw  was the man for the job.

The font is perfect and the parchment header is a lovely, elegant little nod towards the sense of Victoriana which Pantomime exudes. The half-mask is gorgeous and everyone loves a good old masquerade, and Pantomime promises that in more ways than one.

I particularly like the subtitle: Somewhere, there’s a place for everyone.

Not only does it tease and tantalise, it really does tap into the whole ethos behind Strange Chemistry: it’s a pretty profound invitation, in fact, offering a literary refuge where you can experiment with your imagination—and read a damn good book doing so.

What’s Pantomime About?

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.

Pantomime is released by Strange Chemistry in February 2013, but to ease the wait a little, look out for Laura over on Goodreads and check out the pre-order details for the book on the Strange Chemistry site.

You can find Laura over on Twitter, or at her blog where she posts regular updates about the release of Pantomime and her antics as an author.