My heart goes out to Seanan McGuire this year, really it does. As I mentioned in a previous post, this year’s Best Novel nominees for the Hugo Awards was really strong, and if it were any other year, I think Middlegame would have taken the crown. It’s one of my favourite books that I’ve ever read from Seanan McGuire – nearly beating out some of her best Toby Daye novels too.
It did score a Locus award though, so I hope that’s some consolidation,
Asphodel Baker was a woman with big ideas. An amazingly skilled alchemist, she wanted to use alchemy to control the balance between Logos and Pathos – by embodying each principle in human flesh. By controlling the incarnations of Logos and Pathos, one would be able to control the world. Bringing about a new world order is a pretty ambitious goal for virtually anyone, but for Baker, as a woman living in the 1880s, there were a number of limitations she was unable to overcome. So rather than trying to piece it all together during her lifetime, she set the wheels in motion for her goals to be achieved long after she died. Firstly, she makes her own Frankensteinian protege, the inhumanly beautiful and ruthless James Reed, to carry out her research long after she passes. She also sets about writing a primer under the guise of a Narnia-style children’s book to act as a guide to fledgling alchemists.
The opening scene is a shocking one – our two protagonists, Roger and Dodger, are being shot at after some kind of ambush, which leads them coming very close to dying. This ends with an ominous we got it wrong, we got it wrong, we got it wrong, we got it wrong, before rolling back to the story of Baker. This refrain and scene will be revisited a number of times.
So who are Roger and Dodger? Roger Middleton is a young boy with an unbelievable way with words and Dodger Cheswich is a young girl who happens to be a math prodigy. When Roger was young, he had an imaginary friend called Dodger, who would help him with his homework. Dodger was a lonely girl who could get used to the idea of a friend that lives in her head. Roger and Dodger are two potential incarnations of Logos and Pathos, and if they are to successfully carry out what has been planned for them, they cannot be brought together too soon.
One of Middlegame’s greatest strengths is the portrayal of Roger and Dodger. When they are not being manipulated from behind the scenes, what there are are two very talented children – and later, young adults – who do not quite fit in. Both are the kind of geeky, talented kids who are often ostracized by their peers and mismanaged by the adults around them. Yes, the pair of them will often act in ways that will surely frustrate the reader, but it’s easy to see why. One of the things that really stuck with me was the marked difference between what a talented, awkward boy has to deal with versus a talented awkward girl. Dodger even states “Girl nerds are in even more trouble than boy nerds because everybody says we don’t exist.” And of the two of them, it’s Dodger that ends up the more maladjusted adult, and it’s Dodger that struggles harder to pick up the pieces when things go awry.
It would have been bad enough if the pair of them were just a pair of young adults struggling to come to terms with adulthood. But no, Roger and Dodger have the poor luck of being a pair of young adults struggling to come to terms with adulthood while being hounded and manipulated by some pretty sociopathic entities. I wouldn’t say James Reed or his right hand, Leigh, are exactly well-rounded villains. But their appearances always bring in the right amount of fear and dread. Another antagonistic character makes for a more complete character, but to give away their identity would be a bit of a spoiler.
Middlegame is a great, atmospheric novel, but it does have a very twisty latter half that does require careful reading. Once Roger and Dodger start being able to use the powers at their disposable, all bets are off and reality is flung off the table. McGuire is not a hand-holder, and while I personally appreciate this, I know this kind of thing can piss other people off. I think the payoff is absolutely worth it, but I’d strongly advise you not to try and cannonball though the last part of the story.
The complexity behind Middlegame is impressive, and I loved the fact that I could identify in part with young Roger and Dodger, while also appreciating the complexity of the endgame. I get the feeling that McGuire really enjoyed writing this one, it really does encompass all the things she seems to enjoy as an author, And if you like your fantasy slightly dark and twisty, you’ll probably really enjoy reading it too.
After a bit of mental debate, I will add this one as a Gateway for Seanan McGuire’s catalogue. Not an easy read, certainly, but it’s one of the most well-crafted things she has written, it’s a stand-alone, not a series, and it really does cover almost all the elements she’s known for as a writer.