"Middlegame" by Seanan McGuire

Middlegame Cover

I hadn’t read anything by Seanan McGuire before discovering Middlegame, but she’s an accomplished author who’s published a number of very well-received novels. Middlegame is McGuire’s latest novel, and it’s best described as urban science fantasy. It follows the lives of protagonists Roger and Dodger, two brilliant children who live on opposite sides of the country. Roger is a gifted linguist, and Dodger a brilliant mathematician. At around five years old, they discover that they can communicate telepathically.

What Roger and Dodger don’t know is that they’re not human, at least not exactly. They’re the creations of arch-villain James Reed, an alchemist which, for our purposes, means a scientist/magician desperate for world domination. His means of controlling the world (and possibly reality itself) is creating two people who will embody the Doctrine of Ethos, an ill-defined alchemical theory that combines mathematics and language (hence Roger and Dodger’s specialties) to define reality. It’s never fully explained, but Reed’s plan involves waiting for the two embodiments of ethos to “mainfest” and then killing them to seize the Doctrine for himself.

If that sounds like a strange premise for a novel, it is. Whoever wrote the jacket summaries for Middlegame seemed to have a lot of trouble describing the novel. While the previews capture the essential points of the book, they don’t do a great job of describing it, and I’m not sure I did, either. McGuire herself admits in the acknowledgements that she struggled with writing a pitch for the book. But ultimately I overcame my skepticism and dove into Middlegame, and I’m very glad I did.

The emotional core of the book is the relationship between Roger and Dodger, which is beautifully complex and heartbreaking. They have no idea that they’re the creations of a shadowy cabal of alchemists, and we keep getting tantalizing foreshadowings of how this will result in tragedy for our heroes. Over and over again, we feel their pain as they walk right into the traps that have been set for them.

There are pieces missing, sure, and not just on the living room floor, but whose life doesn’t have a few missing pieces? Missing pieces are what makes it real, rather than just a painting of a life that could never actually exist. Missing pieces are essential.

—from Middlegame

It’s hard for me to express how well this is done. McGuire draws the characters exceptionally, making their feelings contagious. She frequently and almost gleefully breaks the basic showing-versus-telling rule of writing: McGuire often simply tells us what Roger and Dodger are thinking and feeling, but somehow it works for her. I loved the writing and had to tear myself away from the protagonists every time I put the book down. The rest of the plot is interesting enough, but Middlegame really depends on Roger and Dodger’s relationship and character development.

By contrast, the villains—Reed and his bloodthirsty subordinate Leigh—are fairly one-dimensional. I didn’t really mind that; Leigh is pure violent evil, and Reed a sort of genteel, sophisticated evil, willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to achieve world domination. And their reach and influence is virtually limitless. If less-developed villains are a turn-off, this might not be a book for you.

There are additional complexities to consider, as well. The structure of the novel can be confusing; it’s not chronological (remember that we’re dealing with characters who have some control over the nature of reality). In my case, this required some concentration and page-flipping to figure out where I was on the story’s timeline. Additionally, the reader is constantly several steps behind McGuire (and Reed and Leigh) in understanding alchemy, the Doctrine of Ethos, and what exactly Roger and Dodger are capable of. I don’t mind being in the dark while a story is developing, but I was a little disappointed when the lack of explanation rendered the denouement slightly unsatisfying.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed Middlegame. Roger and Dodger will stick with me for a long time. Highly recommended.