The Daring Alchemy of Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame

In Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, alchemy and science blend to create a new world order. James Reed, our villain, creator, and puppet master, is a construct made of human body parts, animated by alchemist Asphodel Baker, who remains unrecognized for her genius. Baker used disguised alchemical teachings to create a world-famous, Narnia-esque series of children’s books, indoctrinating children to her teachings at a young age. After her death, the more than 100-year-old Frankenstein’s monster (Reed) is compelled to complete the task set out by his creator. With the help of Leigh, a murderous construct with a sadistic streak, the two monitor the lives of the children they’ve made for the purpose of experimentation, giving no second thoughts to scrapping the lives of the ones who fail.

Seanan McGuire is a genre-bending writer. She has dipped her toe into aliens, fantasy, portal worlds, cryptids, paranormal romance, murderous mermaids (my personal favorite), zombies, and more. With such a dynamic author, it’s no surprise that McGuire continues to write books that defy genre norms.  Middlegame is an exceptional example, told in engaging, cinematic prose. The book begins with an ending, setting the tone for the novel, one that flips through time as if it were pages in a book. As with most time-jumping novels, keeping track of the temporal jumps can be difficult if you ignore the dates at the beginning of each chapter.

Twins Dodger and Roger live on opposite sides of the country, separated at birth by Reed to see if the twins could one day manifest The Doctrine, a kind of magical symbiosis of the universe. Reed’s secret underground lab in the Midwest houses multiple sets of twins, all of which embody one half of this doctrine—one twin is “the math child” and the other is “the language child.”

Dodger is a fiery, self-destructive ball of chaos, blithely stumbling through life with no regard for her safety. She’s more comfortable with numbers and math than she is with any kind of human connection. Her character is obsessive, unfriendly, and deeply depressed. She is unable and unwilling to form any lasting friendships, with the exception of Roger. At the age of nine, she solves a seemingly impossible math problem, putting her on a path carefully monitored by associates of Reed’s alchemical order.

Roger is at home with languages. A polyglot, a voracious reader, and a deeply lonely child who learns how to blend in, Roger spends his childhood devouring the written word. When the twins connect telepathically at age 9, their friendship quickly blossoms into the kind of skinned-knees, secret-sharing friendships all kids have—without the two ever actually meeting.’

Their relationship ebbs and flows over the years, with each twin choosing to shut out the other for one reason or another, stemming from fear, anger, or any combination of the two. The agony of each departure leaves scars that haunt the twins throughout their lives, culminating in a major depressive point in Dodger’s life. Once the characters reach their twenties, they find themselves in grad school at the same college, a “coincidence” that has devastating and life- changing consequences.

As the twins come closer and closer to manifestation, the stakes begin to rise, the body counts reach the hundreds, and time jumps become more frequent.

The one hiccup in an otherwise brilliant book is the slower pacing, engendered by the fact that we know more than the characters do, and we’re waiting for quite some time for the characters’ knowledge to catch up. The book meanders its way through the twins’ childhood, giving us snapshots of their lives through the years. That being said, the payoff is satisfying for those who persevere.

Middlegame is about alchemy. It’s about the relationship and symbiosis of math and language. It’s about bending time to our will using math, while bending the world by creating truths with words. It’s putting the fate of the universe into the hands of children and hoping for the best.

Middlegame is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt from the novel here.

Shauna Morgan is an indie bookseller, assistant blogger for lgbtqreads.com, and certified hoarder of books. When they are not selling books, reading books, or writing about books, you can find them cuddling with one of their three animal friends, dyeing their hair, or ranting on twitter via @bookvvitch

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