Middlegame: Blood is thicker than alkahest

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMiddlegame by Seanan McGuire fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMiddlegame by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire brings together horror, alchemy, and fantasy in Middlegame (2019), a novel about ambition, power, creation, family, genius, and imagination. And because it’s a McGuire novel, there are also plenty of things that go bump in both the day and the night, a terrifying amount of corn, a refutation of pastoral/nostalgic Americana as viewed through the lens of classic children’s literature, and a battle-scarred old tomcat.

James Reed and his assistant Leigh Barrow ― a pair of rebel alchemists of the mad scientist type ― have been doing human experimentation for years, trying to make/breed (it’s a combination of both) children who will embody the “Doctrine of Ethos” and have godlike magical powers. Because putting all this power in one person hasn’t worked, they split the Doctrine into its two components, math and language, between two fraternal twins. One twin will be a math genius; the other gifted with language and words. Raising these children under controlled conditions, the alchemists believe they can achieve the results they want and keep the powers under their own control.

Roger and Dodger are one of these sets of twins, separated at birth and adopted out to families living on opposite coasts of the United State of America. They’re brilliantly gifted in their own ways: Roger has a talent for understanding language and its power over both people and stories, and Dodger has such a head for numbers that she can solve impossible equations. They don’t know they’re related — they don’t even know the other exists — but their worlds change forever when they accidentally discover the ability to communicate telepathically with one another at the age of seven. They have not only the ability to mentally communicate (through “quantum entanglement,” announces Roger triumphantly) but the capacity to see through each other’s eyes ― a revelation to Roger, who is completely colorblind.

Throughout adolescence and early adulthood, Roger and Dodger will reconnect and be pulled apart, over and over again, as forces beyond their understanding try to keep the children from influencing one another and ruining a plan that is generations in the making. Magic has gone from the world, but not permanently, not if the members of the Alchemical Council have anything to say about it.

Roger and Dodger aren’t children, exactly, not in the sense of how children are traditionally created or with the usual intent. James Reed constructed them with a specific purpose, as he himself was constructed by the most brilliant alchemist of her age with a specific purpose, though Reed’s intent is a dangerous one that could end reality as it is commonly accepted. As Roger and Dodger mature and their gifts become more powerful, it’s a race against time to see whether Reed’s dark design will come to fruition or whether Roger and Dodger can write their own story.

Here are our thoughts:

Jana: Middlegame is a thoroughly fascinating and frequently horrifying story, incorporating alchemical theories and practice alongside “found fiction” excerpts from the Up-and-Under children’s books (which are intriguing enough that I would read the entire series, should McGuire choose to take on yet another pseudonym or reveal herself to truly be A. Deborah Baker; it would actually explain quite a lot if we all discovered Seanan McGuire is actually a talented alchemist) and slant-rhyme versions of Tarot figures, such as the Page of Frozen Waters and the Queen of Wands, all of which carry significance in the deep strata of fiction contained herein.

Tadiana: In Middlegame, McGuire blends together light science fiction, fantasy and some horror, and then tosses in elements of Greek philosophy (the aforementioned Doctrine of Ethos), Tarot-like concepts, timeline shifting, classic children’s literature, and more in an almost indescribable literary concoction. Initially I found it a little too muddled. I wanted the improbable road leading to the Impossible City to make more logical sense, and I thought the half-explained quasi-Tarot references to the King of Cups, Queen of Wands/Swords, Jack Daw, and Page of Frozen Waters were more distracting than useful. A. Deborah Baker only briefly appears at the very beginning of Middlegame, but her ideas inform the entire plot. The chapter-heading quotes from her Over the Woodward Wall, one of the Up-and-Under books, add color to the main plot but didn’t supply all of the additional clarity and meaning I was looking for. (I join Jana, though, in deeply wishing that this were an actual book.)

But a funny thing happened on my way to the virtual forum where Jana and I were exchanging our ideas and assembling this review. I dug back into the text of Middlegame and found that these various elements melded together far more satisfactorily than I thought on first read. Elements that at first seemed opaque appeared much clearer on second read. I especially like the idea of L. Frank Baum using The Wizard of Oz to deliberately muddy Baker’s pure division of the four elements (water, air, fire and earth and the related humors) into four quadrants.

I’m still dubious about the “Doctrine of Ethos” as the concept underlying the entire alchemical plot. The original doctrine (a Greek theory of how music influences the thoughts and emotions of humans) has an extremely tenuous logical connection to how our unbalanced alchemists are literally embodying the Doctrine in a pair of individuals, “forc[ing] the Doctrine into flesh” as a way to influence the entire world, the fabric of time and reality itself. And I’ve concluded … you just have to roll with it. Suspend disbelief, strap yourself into your seat and enjoy the ride.

An astrolabe features heavily in the text, and that’s the most apt metaphor I can apply to the novel itself: beautifully polished individual pieces all spinning like mad in carefully-controlled orbits, forming a cohesive whole which must be perfectly balanced in order to keep it from shaking itself to bits. The end result is both enchanting and terrifying as Roger and Dodger navigate the troubled waters of life as a gifted kid, a tremendously painful and lonely experience for each of them, for different yet ultimately very similar reasons.

Smart kids get put on a pedestal by parents and teachers alike, and the rest of the class gathers around the base of it throwing rocks, trying to knock them down. People who say ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ don’t understand how words can be stones, hard and sharp-edged and dangerous and capable of doing so much more harm than anything physical.

There are a lot of insights like this in Middlegame, words so quintessentially true that I suspect a lot of my fellow parolees from Gifted and Talented Education programs will wonder if those passages are written in tiny script on the insides of our skulls and vertebrae.

McGuire has such a gift for putting profound insights into words that strike your heart. As Roger and Dodger, both lonely children who don’t really fit in with others, get to know each other through their long-distance telepathic relationship, they realize how much they fit together, the scholastic strengths of one matching the weaknesses of the other.

They can help each other. They can shore up the broken places. He knows the words for this: cooperation, symbiosis, reciprocity. So many words, and he’ll teach her all of them, if she’ll just keep being his friend.

I realized, not long before Roger and Dodger themselves mention it, that their last names, Middleton and Cheswich, combine to make Midwich, a clever reference to The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic SF horror novel about a group of alien children (partially) concealed among humans. In Middlegame, though, the cuckoos have our undivided sympathy.

Roger’s not as socially isolated as Dodger, but the trade-off is in her relationship with her adoptive parents; Dodger is capable of enacting tremendous change with her mastery of numbers, but needs Roger to direct the shape and direction of that change. Their complementary strengths and weaknesses are carefully orchestrated down to the last detail, and yet the shape and direction of their story is wildly unpredictable and can’t truly be seen until the final paragraph. Meanwhile, their progress is being monitored by Reed and his acolytes, one of whom — a terrifying woman with a penchant for making Hands of Glory, such as the one pictured on the novel’s cover — is, thankfully, not in charge of the project.

Erin, half of one of Reed’s failed twin sets, turned assistant, developed into an excellent, multi-layered character, with far more depth than I initially expected. She ended up being one of my favorite characters … unlike Leigh, whose beauty hides an appalling bloodthirstiness.

I have to add that I think the main plot of Middlegame is ingenious. I loved experiencing the growth of Roger and Dodger and the twists and turns in their relationship, and seeing how their powers gradually manifested. The astrolabe in Reed’s lab turns out to be more than a lovely symbol. There’s some pretty cosmic stuff going on here! If this is just the middle game in this world, I’d love to read about the endgame.

Middlegame is a complex and thought-provoking novel that defies easy categorization. If you’re in the mood for something unusual, we strongly recommend Middlegame.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire fantasy and science fiction book reviewsPublished in May 2019. New York Times bestselling and Alex, Nebula, and Hugo-Award-winning author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame. Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story. Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math. Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet. Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own. Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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5 comments

  1. Sounds interesting, with a lot of elements I enjoy.

    I have to admit, “terrifying amounts of corn” piqued my interest.

    • As it should! There’s also a throw-away reference by Reed at one point to these “wayward children,” which tickled both Jana and me. Roger and Dodger are definitely wayward from his point of view!

    • It’s a book that rewards re-reading, once you get to the end and see the full scope of it all and can then turn around and apply that context to how our perception of the story begins. (I am being deliberately vague here.)

      And yes, beware the corn. But that’s good advice for life in general, not just this novel.

  2. Holy smoke, Seanan McGuire is actually going to turn the Up-and-Under/Over the Woodward Wall thing into a real book series! https://www.tor.com/2019/07/01/announcing-over-the-woodward-wall-a-new-fantasy-series-from-seanan-mcguire/

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