Review: “Middlegame,” Seanan McGuire

Pros: Stunning, maddening alchemical tale
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

The premise of Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame didn’t immediately call out to me, but I figured it’s a Seanan McGuire book, so it would certainly not be a waste of either money or time. I’m so glad I picked it up!

In 1886, an alchemist named Asphodel created a man named James Reed, who was, as she put it, “the beginning of [her] greatest work.” While Asphodel was a brilliant alchemist, she was shunned because she was a woman and she was powerful. In 1986, Reed produced twin children who were meant to manifest the Doctrine of Ethos–to become the living embodiments of language and mathematics. However, those weren’t the only children he created. He managed to manifest several other embodiments, such as Erin and Darren, Order and Chaos. And there were other children who could also grow to manifest the Doctrine. He didn’t know which pairing would make the best hosts for the Doctrine, and he wanted to make sure he could control whoever manifested. Roger and Dodger were adopted and raised separately, but when they were 7 years old Dodger figured out how to reach out to Roger with her mind. Various events brought them together and tore them apart time after time until finally someone told them what was going on–and decided to help them manifest for her own reasons.

Timeline: Five minutes too late, thirty seconds from the end of the world.

The concepts are mind-bending and wonderful. The person who embodies mathematics has control over time. The person who embodies language has control over… well, over everything else, and over the person who embodies mathematics. (It isn’t quite that simple, but that’s enough to get you through this review.) There’s a sort of time travel that happens in this world. Dodger is capable, under the right circumstances, of returning them to a previous “fixed point” in time. While Roger and Dodger don’t remember when this happens, they often have hunches about doing things differently, and someone else does remember–at least some of the time. It’s fascinating to watch this unfold. Normally I dislike most time travel plots because they’re almost inevitably contradictory or full of holes, among other problems. This time, however, I love it. It’s handled so well, and it doesn’t make the twins’ hard work irrelevant, and I think it’s used consistently.

Everything is perfect.
Everything is doomed.

The characters are perfect. It would be all too easy to make Roger and Dodger, or Erin and Darren, into one-note embodiments. Instead they bring their obsessions to life in interesting and wonderful ways. It’s easy to care about these characters, and to understand what drives them. It would also be easy to see Leigh, like Reed another alchemy-created being, as the stereotypical psycho-woman. But she’s brilliant and ambitious in her own right, and a well-enough rounded character. Even marginal characters like Roger and Dodger’s adoptive parents have depth and interest.

“Whoa,” says Dodger.
“Ditto,” says Roger.
“Fucking finally,” says Erin.

I do have to give a content warning for attempted suicide–there are definitely some dark parts to this fantasy. Each chapter starts out with a time stamp, but for once it includes something fantastic: a note of “three days later” or “later that day” or whatever. Since I’m not going to remember the date and time from one chapter to another, this makes things so much easier to keep track of!

I love where this leaves off and it makes a fantastic standalone novel, but at the same time I want more!

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