Book review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire has a very vivid imagination that produced some of the best combinations of folklore, modern fairy tales and urban fantasy in recent years.  Her Wayward Children series is a superb take on classic children literature, with a dark, beautifully ambiguous twist.  As a result, I was very excited to pick up Middlegame, but as much as I enjoyed most of it, this slow burner fizzled out at the end.  The superb writing offsets the drawn-out plot, one-dimensional characters and the lack of any emotional attachment, which may work well in the author’s shorter stories, but thinking back at this novel, I must admit I’m likely to forget this book soon.

In a world very similar to ours, there is a secret society of alchemists, who either coexist with the rest of us or try to dominate mankind.  One of the latter was Asphodel Baker, arguably one of the greatest alchemists, who among other things constructed James Reed, a man equal in her skill.  Reed killed her and took over her research, in order to take control of the Doctrine, which would let him command the world.  To achieve this goal, he created a series of twins and infused one twin with mathematics, and the other with language.  His theory stated that the last surviving pair of twins would combine their powers and travel to the Impossible City, where they’d take over the world, while he would be holding their leashes.

One such pair are Dodger and Roger.  They were split at birth and sent to the opposite ends of the continental US.  The girl, Dodger, grows up in California and becomes a brilliant mathematician.  Her power allows her to see numbers and geometry everywhere, and she uses it subconsciously, making exact decisions based on her spatial awareness.  Unfortunately, she is also without any social skills and suffers from depression.  The boy, Roger, grows up in Boston, and from his earliest days he is fascinated by language.  He hoards books and likes to learn the meanings of words.  He is far more sociable and mentally stable.

The two discover a link between them, which allows them to enter each other’s minds, see the world through the other’s eyes and communicate.  At first, they use it to help one another with homework.  Dodger completes Roger’s math assignments, and Roger does the same for Dodger with English.  Reed learns about this, and sends his henchman, Leigh, to break the link.  Leigh visit’s Roger’s parents and threatens to take away their adopted son if he keeps communicating with Dodger.  Rogers stops calling her, which causes Dodger to enter a depressive state where she tries to commit suicide.  This experience and the link between the two nearly kill Roger, who musters all his remaining strength to call emergency services to Dodger’s location.

Over the years, the two keep resuming their communication, but Roger always disconnects for one reason or another, until one day they happen to run into each other at the campus of the university they both attend.  From then on, they slowly become friends again, with Dodger still cautious about Roger’s sudden disappearances.  As they get comfortable with each other, their mutual friend is murdered by Erin, Leigh’s helper and just as skilled an assassin.  They investigate the murder scene, and by happenstance trigger a massive earthquake that kills hundreds of people.  Roger, scared of what they were capable of, abandons Dodger again.

Fast forward a few more years.  Roger works at a library and lives with Erin whom he does not suspect of being the murderer.  Dodger is a global math star, with mental problems that require a psychologist.  Reed, meanwhile, cultivates another set of twins that he can control better, and he orders Erin to kill Roger.  Erin switches allegiances, warns Roger, and together they make their way to Dodger, who in the meantime is busy fighting off the psychologist who got a similar order to kill her.  Together, they hatch an escape plan, but are pursued by Leigh, whom they finally confront and defeat.  The last hurdle towards their survival is Reed.  They go meet him in his underground lair, and after a few twists and turns defeat him as well.  By that time, it is evident that the two can manipulate time and reality.  Whatever Roger says becomes true, and he can command Dodger to reset the timeline to a specific point.  Only in the aftermath they find out that they reset the timeline thirteen thousand times, to finally get to the point where they were able to defeat Reed.  They literally walk into the sunset, towards their freedom.

The synopsis is very short, and I did not cover a few side stories, such as Reed’s interaction with other alchemists, the reason why Erin switched sides, or the interludes from a fictious children book that had characters comparable to Roger and Dodger walk the Improbable Road towards the Impossible City.  McGuire later expanded on that book and published it separately.  Still, the storyline is not complex enough to warrant over 500 pages of text.  This is a real slow burner, with spurts of action among long passages of children growing up.  What held my attention was the writing style.  The book is written in present tense, and this adds to it a sense of urgency, which is largely false in the context of the story, but still powerful enough to carry me through like a strong stream.  The text also seems very compact, with no superfluous word or phrase.  This gives the book an appearance of a much shorter work and lets the reader to power through it without realizing the work’s deficiencies.

Only in hindsight, I realized the flaws in this work.  The most obvious is character development.  Roger and Dodger are incredibly flat characters.  Their personalities and skills may be predetermined by their creator, but even so they seem not to evolve at all.  Roger keeps being the same asshole towards Dodger, and Dodger keeps trusting him, only to keep having her heart broken.  However, the biggest sin towards these two was, in my opinion, how poorly Roger was developed in terms of his powers.  Dodger was personified math, and from an early age she became a brilliant mathematician and chess player.  Roger, the personification of language, on the other hand, became a librarian.  I couldn’t help but to compare him with Gallinger from Roger Zelazny’s A Rose for Ecclesiastes.  Gallinger was also the world’s greatest linguist, albeit without any powers, and Zelazny let the reader believe that.  Gallinger could learn a completely different language in a matter of weeks, he was well traveled and read, and his speech was full of allusions to works of literature.  Roger, on the other hand, comes across as an unambitious slacker who is content with sorting books on shelves, and despite his advancing age, likes to hang out at the university campus (no offense to my wonderful professors and librarians, who didn’t come across as creepy at my alma mater).  This was an enormous disservice to Roger and to the reader.

The antagonists don’t fare much better.  Reed and Leigh are described as very powerful and very murderous.  However, we see no proof of that.  Reed has his people murder others, often at the cost of their own lives, but we never learn how he can exert so much control over them.  Leigh is his most efficient henchman, but we see her in action only twice: once she gets into a shootout where she isn’t doing all that great, and the second time she has to ambush the twins to be able to do any damage.  Yet, people are absolutely terrified of her.  Speaking of unanswered questions, there are many more regarding Reed.  We don’t know why he killed his creator, and we still don’t know how exactly he was planning to take over the world.  The Impossible City is never described or actually reached, and the mechanism of controlling the world from that place is not even touched on.

The only character that was sympathetic and interesting is Erin.  She switches sides, she grows with the story, and she actually proves that she is a skilled and ruthless assassin.  I think that McGuire realized this at the end of the book, because the only cliffhanger that’s left concerns Erin.  And the only reason I’d pick up the next book, slated for publication in 2021, would be if Erin’s story was continued.

The ending, apart from Erin’s fate, seemed a little rushed.  This can be best seen in a scene where Reed kills the entire Alchemical Congress, the governing body of alchemy, which Reed sees as a threat.  The method, and especially the lack of caution from the best alchemists in the land, seem extremely unlikely.  This was the first time my immersion was truly broken, and I had to question the prose.  A few pages later McGuire kills off Leigh in such a ridiculously convenient and easy way that even she realizes it and invokes a classic children book where the antagonist suffered a similar fate.

McGuire relies on classic literature in her works quite often, usually to the benefit in the story.   Here, she even goes as far as to invent a children book, and it works very well.  In this story her fictious book is mentioned along with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Both are written by alchemists, competing with each other, to try to shape ordinary people’s minds.  This is reminiscent of Lewis Padgett’s Mimsy Were the Borogoves, where Through the Looking Glass is said to contain instructions for time travel.  In that story, the classic book served as the last and final twist.  Here, the inclusion of Oz is a little heavy-handed.

Still, I must return to the quality of the writing.  I realized all the flaws of the book only in hindsight; I was so dazzled by the language and style.  It makes the book flow much faster than it normally should, and it manages to cover some thirty years of life for two separate people, worldbuilding, timeline resets and a few forks from the main story, all in the span of some five hundred pages.  In hindsight, this book would have worked perfectly as a much shorter work.  It already has the hallmarks of a novella, with its static characters, abandoned plot points and rushed ending, but the writing lifts the story to a long novel length.  If you want to be entertained by a good, long read, then by all means pick up this book, but don’t dwell on it too much once you’ve finished it.

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