You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl with gray eyes and red hair, and a talent for numbers that rivaled anyone in the entire universe. She lived in Palo Alto, California, and was very loved by her parents, but very lonely.
There was also a little boy, also with gray eyes, and a hunger for words, for language, that defined his soul. He lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with parents who pushed him to be his best, and was also very lonely.
One day, the children discovered that they could talk to each other, through a connection in their minds. They understood one another and weren't alone anymore.
This is the story of two siblings who aren’t entirely human, born of an alchemical experiment to embody the power of the universe in flesh. These two cuckoos are observed and measured, carefully manipulated by their makers, in the hopes that one day their powers will fully manifest and they will open the doors to the Impossible City—alchemical nirvana, the rebirth of magic, the place where all things are possible and absolute control over existence can be seized.
But the boy and the girl have different plans. They don’t want to be controlled. They don’t know they are an experiment yet, but when they do they will move heaven and earth and cut time itself to save one another.
This is the story of Middlegame, an alchemical fairy tale from Seanan McGuire. Following two adopted twins—Roger and Dodger—who were made in a laboratory and infused with The Doctrine, Middlegame reads like an alchemical blend of Stephen King's Dark Tower and V.E. Schwab’s Vicious, drawing heavily from Shelley’s Frankenstein and Baum’s Oz. Premise-wise, this is all a good thing. Middlegame is undeniably unique and positively enthralling—we meet the boy (Roger) and the girl (Dodger) and instantly feel for these two isolated children and we want them to win. As they are torn apart over and over again by the shadowy group and alchemical nightmares who created them, we see fluid shots of futures in which Roger and Dodger got it wrong and have to try again. This is a book about second-third-hundred-thousand-million chances, as the twins find and lose and rediscover one another through the paths of their lives.
From that kernel idea, Middlegame becomes a sprawling and ambitious book, chronicling the long and winding (yellow brick) road the pair travel to finally get it right. (If that doesn’t sell you on a book, I don’t know what will.)
This is where Seanan McGuire triumphs and Middlegame shines: the inevitability of its plotting, the strength of its premise, the sheer ambition that McGuire ruthlessly packs into the story and the care she has for her two protagonists.
The place where things go slightly off-kilter—your mileage may vary—is if you’re not super into alchemy (there’s a lot of alchemical humbugery), or the notion that the summation of all knowledge is in “math” and “words.” I believed much more in Dodger’s abilities with math than I did with Roger’s talent for words. (Perhaps because he’s curiously inept for so much of the book and not particularly eloquent in any of his timelines.) The other major complaint I had was stylistic—there’s a very obvious attempt at poetic emphasis in the prose, and it comes off as self-indulgent, forced, and irritating. The claptrap conversations between Alchemist Reed, Leah, and Order-embodiment Erin are the greatest offenders, though all of the Up-and-Under stuff feels remarkably silly and self-important. This is to say nothing of the liberal use of foreshadowing doom at the end of multiple chapters, e.g. “It will be much, much later before he realizes that this was the moment when he decided which part he was going to play. By then it will be a thousand miles too late.” or “She’s so wrapped up in watching them go that she never glances towards the window...that’s a pity. It might have saved her life.” and so on and so forth.
The good news is, if you can stomach the alchemical balderdash, and look past the indulgent writing to get to the underlying story, Middlegame is worth the trip.
In Book Smugglerish, 6 and a half astrolabe resets out of 10.