By: Seanan McGuire
Meet Roger. His world is shaped by his obsession with languages both modern and dead. 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 the twins in a lab though he’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise Roger and Dodger to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.
Alchemy is this book’s magic system. As with any system in fiction, it must be adequately described to understand the rules the world is governed by. Without rules, there is an overarching vagueness and amorphous quality to what is possible in the story and what is not. I find vagueness of that sort frutsrating because I believe it reduces the tension of the story and never fails to leave questions unanswered. Without rules, there will always be gaps in the logic and consistency of the narrative.
Strangely, the most described aspects of Middlegame’s alchemy are the gory bits where they make tools out of the body parts of murdered people because they have “special properties.” In a story like this, those details are compelling because it shows the antagonists are willing to go to great lengths to accomplish their goals. There are no boundaries they won’t cross. That makes the stakes higher when the reader stops to consider the type of people who would risk everything to take over the universe. But even with those small details, the rest of the alchemy seems to be left to the reader’s interpretation.
For example, sometimes Roger and Dodger’s powers work really well and other times they don’t seem to work at all. It’s as if they can turn them on and off but not intentionally. Which could be compelling if we weren’t told many times that they could literally break the world with their minds if they only knew how to activate themselves.
Roger and Dodger are more like superheroes that can do really terrible/incredible things than gods. The story makes it very clear that they will come into their “godhood” once they fully mature but we don’t see that happen. The entire story is about them “manifesting” and reaching the zenith of their power (which they achieve) but they don’t actually know how to use all of their abilities. That made the payoff of the story feel less gratifying because they are supposed to be characters who can reshape the fabric of reality but instead they are only a little more connected than they were before. Now they can break the laws of reality…sometimes. But only when they really mean it! This causes some logical inconsistencies in the narrative that impact the tension of the story, but I also understand why the author made those choices. No one likes to read about characters that are supremely powerful because that’s boring. Nothing is a challenge for them if they fully realize their godhood, so I think it would have been a better choice to create the twins as supreme beings with powerful abilities rather than young gods that will eventually be able to do anything.
I found the final showdown engaging but not necessarily tense. Like with any YA book, we know the good guys win. The journey is figuring out how they do it. At the risk of giving too much away, I will say that one of my favorite reveals is finding out that Roger and Dodger have been resetting time every 30 years over 13,000 times to try to get their timeline right. That gave the story gravity. It demonstrates that the two of them didn’t have it easy trying to save the world and that they weren’t normal protagonists that get it right on the first go. They spent 390,000 years, an eternity for a normal human, redoing their lives to try and get the best possible ending. The pair don’t win because they are inherently better or more powerful than the antagonists. They won because of their willingness to keep trying over and over to become the best versions of themselves. Versions that could overcome the obstacles laid before them. To become the people who stood the greatest chance at saving the world. That’s incredible and shows that the characters are flawed and imperfect despite their extreme intelligence. Those flaws show their humanity breaking through, and that’s what makes them memorable.
A lot of the wording becomes repetitive with the number of times Dodger is described as math and Roger is described as language. It’s pounded into the reader’s head constantly. The separation of the characters was also predictable. Once it happens a first time, it’s bound to happen again and again. I give credit to McGuire though for her descriptions of loneliness and how that impacts children from a very early age molding and shaping them into who they eventualy become. Middlegame touches on some dark topics including suicide though not to glorify or condem it but more to shed light on the ugly truth of why people do it and the harm it causes to those they leave behind. It’s factual rather than a criticism, but it is still viewed as something tragic.
With all the combined themes of the story, I struggle to call this story horror so much as a dark fantasy. The time travel should make it sci-fi but I wouldn’t call the story that either because there’s very clearly a magic system. I don’t know that I’ve read many books that have fantasy and sci-fi elements at the same time meaning this book likes to defy my previously conceived notions of genre. Whatever it is, it’s definitely dark. Not a book I would read if you are severely depressed.
A part I enjoyed was the use of passages from a fictional novel called Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker which paralleled Roger and Dodger’s narrative. I went on Goodreads and found the novel and for a split second thought it was an original novel existing outside of this story’s universe until I saw that it was published in 2020 after Middlegame and was designed as a companion novel to it. That made me not want to go and read it because it’s essentially going to be the plot from Middlegame made weirder, and I have no idea if it would actually explain anything like the Impossible City or improbable road. If not, then it would just make me mad.
A really great quote from this story is, “You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle. You’d never survive.” That message is for our protagonists as much as the reader. Middlegame is not a short book at 529-pages. Like with many longer books, the middle can feel like the story has ebbed. Readers want to get to the exciting parts, the conclusion. We want to know what happens in the end and why. But it’s true that elements that occur in the middle of the story are important for the build-up at the end. Some of it probably could have been cut out but I give McGuire credit that there’s not much that could be removed. It’s a cohesive narrative and every part makes sense even when things slow down or don’t seem as exciting.
Overall rating: 4