Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (Hugo 2020 Finalist)

This novel is both like and utterly unlike McGuire’s Wayward Children series. If you’ve read those connected novellas, you will see the DNA of them in Middlegame. There’s that same interest in the long term fate of children caught up in sinister magical plots, the same love and faith in the power of children’s stories (exemplified by the snippets from the connected story-within-the-story Over the Woodward Wall) and the same interest in the sibling relationship as an alternate dynamic for an emotional arc.

However, while manifestly the work of the same author, this is also quite a different story — much stronger both in character development and plot and not just because it is novel length.

An American alchemist, John Reed (himself a being created by his predecessor alchemist Asphodel Baker) sets out to gain the ultimate power of the universe by embodying alchemical principles in two people. Like a binary chemical weapon, the concept is to divide the controlling principles of the universe into two halves that while separate are relative quiescent but when brought together will gain ultimate power over the universe. By keeping these twinned-people apart, Reed seeks to maintain control over this ultimate power known as the Doctrine of Ethos.

The alchemical principles behind Reed’s plan had already been laid out in public encoded in the plot of Asphodel Baker children’s book series “Over the Woodward Wall” a kind of Oz like series of books from the same time period as Baum’s books (indeed late within Middlegame we learn that the Oz books are a kind of alchemical counter-attack to Baker’s plans).

Reed has multiple such experiments running, with sets of twins in different circumstances to see which ones will most readily adapt into suitable vessels for his plans…

Which takes us to the unfortunately named Roger and Dodger (their names are a plot point). We meet them as children, both adopted by academic families one on the east coast of the US and one on the west. Roger is a precocious but quiet child with a gift for words and language. Dodger is equally precocious but more boisterous (and less sociable) with a gift for arithmetic and mathematics. They discover each other via telepathy and vague memories of having had imaginary friends in their childhood with those same names (i.e. Dodger’s father reminds her that she had an imaginary friend called Roger).

The story follows Roger and Dodger through childhood, adolescence and college as life, fate and the secret machinations of the sinister John Reed (and his acolytes) pull them apart and draw them together again. We know from the chapter sub-titles and flash-forward chapters that there are timeline shenanigans going on and that, at some point, Roger and Dodger will find themselves on the Improbable Road to the Impossible City just like the two equally twinned-but-mismatched characters in Over the Woodward Wall.

Their life story is distressing and heartfelt. There is a very upsetting section around self-harm/suicide that needs to be flagged up front. Obviously the issue around the alienation and loneliness that gifted children can feel is a repeated aspect of the story. Dodger’s use of chess as a means to take part in the world in a structured way mirrors the plots around the main characters.

A weaker aspect of the story is John Reed is a very one-dimensional villain. Asphodel Baker also remains something of an enigma even once the story is resolved, with the implication of Reed being morally quite different but also Reed himself being an instrument of Baker’s wider scheme.

Better developed is Reed’s proxy Erin: an earlier experiment in creating twins that embody a dichotomy, she is a manifestation of order and her (murdered) twin of chaos. A ruthless assassin but also a wry observer of the world around her who has an incomplete sense of the bigger picture around her and enough fragments of morality to save a cat in an earthquake (partly precipitated by Erin murdering a mutual friend).

The broad theme and structure (following two complimentary characters through childhood to adulthood each of whom are drawn to two different perspectives and organising principles and stories) is very akin to Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. Quite different plots in other ways but they are unlike two different essays on a related topic.

Overall, this is a very strong contender for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. I haven’t read a lot of McGuire’s work (mainly the Wayward Children) and I know she has a very broad range but this is easily the strongest thing I’ve read by her. Her command of prose is always strong but she has taken many familiar elements from her work here and found a balance between them to really elevate the sum of those parts into something alchemicaly stronger.

I listened to the audiobook version read by Amber Benson, which was overall good but I found the tone she adopted for the villainous Reed and his underling a bit too OTT and that may have shaped my impression of them as a bit lacking in characterisation.

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16 responses to “Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (Hugo 2020 Finalist)”

  1. No, your thoughts on Reed mirror mine, and I read this in print, so I don’t think that’s the reader’s fault. It’s funny, I’m a huge McGuire fan, although mainly for her two long running urban fantasy series which I love (I liked only one of the first 3 wayward children novellas).

    I liked but didn’t love Middlegame and didn’t have it on my ballot. My main issue was – and I guess you could argue this doesn’t matter compared to the character development of the main duo and Erin – I couldn’t quite figure out what the main antagonist was really trying to accomplish, or what Baker was trying to accomplish through him…..I kept waiting for a plot twist that never came about how everything went according to Baker’s designs. The main characters’ growth makes the novel work still very well, but too much of the heavy foreshadowing in the novel (from its lack of linear storytelling and frequent jumps to the end) made me expect some explanations that never came, and instead we got a really rushed final act to the final final finish.

    My own review (which doesn’t say much more than this so not really worth visiting) is at my blog here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2019/06/scififantasy-book-review-middlegame-by.html

    This won’t be the last on my ballot (whenever voting opens) but it’ll be in the bottom tier, even if I think it’s a worthy novel.

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    • Reed seemed to be very intentionally part of Baker’s plan right down to him eventually murdering him but to no apparent end. I didn’t get that aspect of it and the later part of the book was very much the heroes trying to fulfil Baker’s plans? I feel like I missed something.

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      • I took it as like a Greek tragedy trope… son kills father to obtain his power. Reed kills his creator to transcend what she was able to accomplish. And I think she was part of what he used to create the children…her bones? At one point Reed reflects on how Dodger looks like Baker.

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      • camestrosfelapton: Reed seemed to be very intentionally part of Baker’s plan right down to him eventually murdering him but to no apparent end. I didn’t get that aspect of it and the later part of the book was very much the heroes trying to fulfil Baker’s plans? I feel like I missed something.

        I thought that this novel is very much a step up from the Wayward Children novellas which are mostly all variations on the same theme, but agree that the motivational structure here has holes and feels very hand-wavy.

        I also thought it was bizarre that the main characters never realized that the orchestrators made great efforts to keep them separated after it became clear that they had found each other across the country; instead, one main character continues to blame the other, without realizing that it was their own actions in asking to go visit the other which caused the orchestrators to put a stop to their contact.

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        • Oh very much yes on that last point. We have two protagonists who are very much the epitome of intellectually CURIOUS people who avoid some very obvious questions about themselves. Some of that is explained by trauma, gaslighting and fear but mainly it is a plot contrivance to keep the coming-together/drawing-apart tension going. It bugged me more in retrospect but Roger in particular should have researched the shit out of it. Arguably he did in other timelines etc etc (hence the one scary encounter with his own parents) but that feels unsatisfying as an answer.

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  2. I liked this one a lot, but my kid (who is 21) loved it to PIECES. It’s easily his favorite book of the year.

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  3. This was one of my nominees. I’m tentatively ranking it second. I’ve loved the Wayward Children novellas. I’ve read some of her other work and enjoyed it well enough, but thought this was really excellent.

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  4. I don’t think I’m emotionally up to this right now. Which is fine since I don’t have and don’t want a vote this year. 5 (?) years straight of nominating and voting kind of burned me out so it’s a nice break.

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    • Lurkertype: I don’t think I’m emotionally up to this right now.

      As with the Wayward Children novellas, there is a lot of grimness and death, and it’s perfectly okay for you to feel that you don’t have the spoons for this right now. ❤

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  5. I know everyone has different taste, but I’m lost on this one. I generally like McGuire in all her incarcerations, and this novel fell so flat for me that I hit the seven deadly words halfway in and skimmed through the rest.

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  6. […] Last time I reviewed Ted Chiang’s novella finalist and that story has an odd dynamic with his also nominated novelette. Based on a plot synopsis the stories are utterly different but there is a conceptual overlap such that reading one causes a re-evaluation of the other. There is a similar dynamic here between McGuire’s novella (a new entry in The Wayward Children series) and her nominated novel Middlegame. […]

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