Oh my, where to start in describing this novel? And how to do it without revealing too much and therefore spoiling your enjoyment the story? Well, let’s begin with the cover, one that would have drawn my attention even without the name of Seanan McGuire, one of my favorite authors, acting like a magnet. That hand-shaped candle with the burning wicks at the end of each finger carries such an ominous overtone that I could not wait to learn what it meant – by the way, it’s a Hand of Glory, it features prominently from a certain point onwards, and “ominous” barely scratches the surface as far as I’m concerned…
The beginning of Middlegame might seem a little confusing, but my advice is to go with the flow and trust the author to carry you where she intends to: everything will become clear in no time at all. Even though the story is set in modern times, it shows some intriguing anachronisms: in the beginning we meet James Reed, an alchemist and at the same time a Frankenstein-like construct created by another famous alchemist, Asphodel Baker, whose dream was to harness the Doctrine, the fundamental force ruling the world, to shape it according to her vision. Baker never reached such a goal, hindered as she was by the Alchemical Congress, but Reed intends to continue his creator’s work – not so much to bring her legacy to fruition, but rather to gain absolute power. Reed’s way to make the Doctrine pliable to his will is to channel it in living flesh, embodying its constituent elements in twin children, each of whom will receive half of this energy.
Roger and Dodger are two such twins (not the only ones, though…), brought to life in Reed’s lab and infused, respectively, with the gift of language and mathematics, the two halves of the whole Doctrine. They are then separated and given to foster families, to grow as normal children until maturity will turn them into the tools Reed needs to wield. They are not normal children however, because their talents go well beyond the usual range to move into genius territory: Roger possesses an uncanny gift for languages, and Dodger plays with numbers as other girls do with dolls. One day, despite being hundreds of miles apart, they connect with each other, establishing a mind link that will indelibly shape their lives and their future, while at the same time mitigating in part their essential loneliness. As much as their creator and his minders try to keep them apart, to prevent them from reaching the desired peak too early, Roger and Dodger move through the years in a complicated dance of closeness and distance, friendship and hurt, mutual comfort and profound misunderstandings that will culminate one day in their actual meeting and the start of an unpredictable chain of events, involving time flow and the fabric of reality.
There are so many levels to this story that on hindsight I’ve come to acknowledge the fact that the core concepts of the Doctrine and Reed’s megalomaniac plans become secondary to the evolution of Roger and Dodger as persons: they are wonderfully depicted characters, their journey from childhood to maturity a fascinating progress that has little to do with their uncanny abilities and more with their sense of kinship, that bond which unites them from early on and is never broken even through separation and fallings-out. If there is a topic in which Seanan McGuire excels is the exploration of the human soul and the hurts children suffer as they grow up: Roger and Dodger are essentially lonely children, excluded by their nature and upbringing from their peers’ usual activities, always “on the outside looking in” and more often than not unable to understand the reasons for this rift.
There is a very poignant quality in the awareness of their isolation, which leads to the easy acceptance of the voice each of them hears inside their heads as the first contact is made and both children understand on some basic level that they have met their complement – the missing half, the part that completes them just as language and math, heart and reason, complete each other. Through them we explore the themes of friendship and family, of the connections we establish with other people and how deeply they can run, of the way our abilities can shape us and direct our lives. But above all we come to care for these odd twins and the way their respective orbits move around the center represented by their need to be together in order to be complete, and that’s the kind of story that compelled me to keep reading and made me resent every moment when I had to put the book down.
One of the reasons Middlegame is so absorbing comes from its peculiar narrative style, one that does not care too much about linearity and starts at what looks like an ending, and a shocking one at that: “There is so much blood.”, a sentence that informs the overall mood of the novel and keeps the reader mired in uncertainty about the fate of the main characters. From here the story moves haphazardly from past to future to past, the only navigational directions coming from the time and date given at the beginning of each chapter: such fluidity has its roots in one of the novel’s core themes, which is also an astounding discovery of the twins’ powers. I have often remarked how the vagaries of time can be a tricky subject where I am concerned, but here it all made a lot of sense, not to mention that it increased my perception of the stakes at hand, and just for once I did not care for the intricacies of time-hopping and its inherent contradictions because McGuire made it all appear so natural, so understandable in its very impossibility, that I could only accept and enjoy it.
The other characters in the story are truly secondary when compared with Roger and Dodger, so that the main villain Reed is not drawn too precisely, for example, although that turned out to be of little importance to me because in the end he was a little like Tolkien’s Sauron – a dire, evil presence in the background, mentioned but hardly seen. A little more definite is Reed’s henchwoman Leslie, another alchemical construct assembled from parts of dead women (which is a thoroughly chilling concept): her penchant for murder, mayhem and the suffering of others plays an interesting contrast with Reed’s detached cruelty. But the one who most drew my attention, in a strange mixture of dislike and pity, is Erin, the surviving half of another pair of experimental twins, and Leslie’s deputy of sorts: hers is an intriguing journey and one that I don’t want to spoil – discovering her depths and facets is one of the fascinating surprises of this novel.
Much as I always enjoy works penned by Seanan McGuire, I have to acknowledge that Middlegame feels like a further step up in her writing, plotting and character exploration skills, certainly the best book I have read so far from this author. Don’t let it pass you by, or you will miss an amazing story.