Author: Seanan McGuire
Genre: Science Fiction/Contemporary
Page Count: 528
Notable Notables: Unconventional narrative, messy characters, well-written villains
Recommended Readers: Hey, kids, wanna have your minds blown?
Middlegame marks the first book from Seanan McGuire that I have ever read, and I fear that I have made a mistake. I fear that Seanan has ruined me for other books, including her own because honestly? Where am I supposed to go from here? There’s nowhere more up to go! This is it. I have reached a pinnacle of storytelling and composition I had no idea I was going to receive or was even looking for to begin with. It’s a masterpiece, a tour de force; it’s everything all the other books want to be like when their authors spend decades honing their craft and feel like attempting the impossible.
Our story follows separated twins Roger and Dodger, and yes, those names are deliberately bad, and yes, they have been deliberately separated, unaware of the other’s existence. This is a regular Parent Trap scenario–if your parents are two evil alchemists, a lab was your womb, and you were created, not to be people, but to embody two parts of an all-powerful, alchemical doctrine that, when united, can give the wielder enough power to control the fabric of the universe—to become a god, in other words.
Yeah, you know, I think that’s how the plot of the Parent Trap went, now that I mention it. Ah, Seanan, you’re not so smart after all, it seems.
Except she is because starting from the first five minutes too late, thirty seconds from the end of the world, your world and all you understand of it is officially over.
What is a middlegame, anyway?
- the phase of a chess game after the opening, when all or most of the pieces and pawns remain on the board.
Jesus, Seanan, the entire book is the board, the readers are the pieces, the characters are the pawns who could become something more, and the opening scene—that specific moment in time that is not truly the beginning—is the middlegame, isn’t it?
I need a minute.
Okay, I’m back.
Believe it or not, while the intrigue of this novel begins with Roger and Dodger, it’s complicated by the presence of James Reed, who follows the steps of his creator, lover, and predecessor, Deborah A. Baker. She is the source of the novel’s plot, an unseen force, and ironically enough, the creator of her own story called Over the Woodward Wall.
Yes, Middlegame frames a story within a story, namely a new fairytale with select passages written within the pages of a science fiction novel, effectively blending fantasy and sci-fi together inside one book. I am besotted. I love stories featuring stories. I love when writers craft new fairytales and folktales, and this one is particularly incredible because of its sinister intentions: it isn’t just a story; it’s a road map to the Impossible City, the end goal of every alchemist’s endeavor.
Throughout the novel, the dark side of alchemy and children’s stories is on full display, evoking elements from gothic horror like Frankenstein and offering acknowledging nods to The Wizard of Oz. A common thread of these stories is characters figuring out where they belong, what they’re capable of, who their family is. Enter Roger and Dodger.
I truly love both of them and all the mistakes they make, especially in regards to each other. Their family relationship is full of yearning and pain, love and betrayal, with no one in the entire world understanding them better than each other. The twins are engineered people, but they encapsulate all the complexities of humanity while being each other’s opposite. Roger embodies language, and Dodger embodies math, yet I was surprised to find myself gravitating toward Dodger a little bit more. It might be because her emotions are so much sharper on the page because, unlike Roger, she doesn’t know how to describe them, only to feel and quantify them.
Their journey and their link through quantum entanglement–as they call is–both serve as the center point of the novel; they are what everything revolves around, and Seanan made me care about them instantly.
Part of it is due to the force of pure characterization. The other part is the plot surrounding them and how Seanan pulls it off. It is rare for me to read a story told in third-person omniscience, and I can’t even tell you the last time I’ve seen a writer utilize it to its full effect, with perfect balance, tension, and foreshadowing. On top of that, Middlegame‘s narrative is cyclical due to Seanan flexing on everybody with alternate timelines and paradoxes, with the readers experiencing these reality shifts alongside the characters.
That’s all I really want to get into as far as specifics because this book is truly a masterpiece of science fiction that’s still somehow grounded in our modern-day world–and yet the boundaries are constantly pushed as the Impossible City draws closer and closer. I was enthralled by these characters and the incredibly poignant prose. Our heroes are so ordinary yet capable of mind-blowing power, their existences a tragedy and a miracle all in one. Our villains are cunning and terrifying; I really don’t know who I love more, the pitiless Leigh Barrow or the shrewd James Reed. (Okay, fine, yes, it’s Reed, and yes, I have a sick little crush on him, shut up.) Finally, there’s Erin who is somewhere in between that I’m dying for you to meet.
This funky, ambitious book featuring a hand of glory, chess games, and telepathic twins works perfectly as a standalone, but I’ve recently learned that Seanan wishes to write more in this universe, including Over the Woodward Wall under the Deborah A. Baker pen name. Therefore, I’m now even more desperate when I tell you to please read this book because the others will only happen if Middlegame excels. It’s dark, it’s lyrical, it’s heavy, it’s unconventional, and it might not be for you–but it might also be the entrance to the Impossible City via the Improbable Road that you didn’t know you were looking for.