Book review: ‘Middlegame’ by Seanan McGuire

(no spoilers)

#triggerwarning for suicide attempt and self harm

Seanan McGuire’s writing is the closest to truth I have ever read. Her stories may be wrapped up in fantasy, but ultimately they cut closer to the sinew of life than anything else out there. And honestly, it is so intellectually and emotionally deep that I really have no idea how to explain it to someone else. This is going to be a sweet n’ short review, and I’m just going to tell you to read it!

Roger and Dodger are twins. Roger has a way with words, and Dodger a way with numbers. But they have no idea of their real connection – all they know is that one day, from across the world, they start to communicate telepathically. McGuire has created a solid and intriguing fantasy world, a dark but hopeful twist of science and gods and quantum entanglement and powers related to math and words. As intense as the subject matter, it is still full of the diversity, accessibility, beauty, darkness, suspense and surprise we’ve come to know from her YA fantasy work.

When you pick up a McGuire novel, you know you’re in for a real story. Something you can get your teeth into and relish. After my experience with The Wayward Children series (see the goopy emotional review here) I knew I needed to read something else from her, and it was on the recommendation of my fantastic friend and fellow bookworm Emma that I decided to indulge in ‘Middlegame’ next. I was a little wary because I’m not usually one for Science and God undertones, but and slap-me-upside-the-head-if-I-didn’t-love-this-one-too. 

Can this author do no wrong? Even if she does, she’s so fucking profilic that I think any bad stuff gets buried (just try scrolling down this page if you don’t believe me). #majorwriterenvy

I’ll start with the good stuff. The result of years of hard work means that McGuire’s writing style is something quite extraordinarily effortless. It has a tinge of poetry to it, and yet I don’t get the impression that McGuire is sitting at home, pulling her hair out or forcing this style of writing. It simply reads as if it’s flowing out of her. Something she herself absolutely denies, so her editing must be spot on: “For the sweet love of all that is holy, edit, proofread, revise, and practice the art of self-critique. I mean it. There is no one on this planet so good at this game that they can just throw a fistful of words at the page and declare it brilliant. Needing to revise does not make you a failure, and becoming a better writer isn’t going to take that need away. Embrace the revision process as a chance to dig down into the heart of your text and make it everything that it deserves to be.” (taken from her 50 rules for writing)

Roger and Dodger (don’t be put off by the rhyming names, there’s a really important reason why they sound so ridiculous) are fantastic characters who we follow throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. We see them spend periods of time together, and apart, and we come to understand what each of them have to gain by finding each other. We start to really understand how intertwined they are when Dodger makes a personal choice, making for an incredibly powerful and moving chapter. 

Together, they need to try to deal with this otherness which turns from a simple oddity to real, powerful danger when their quantum entanglement causes a disaster at their college and they uncover more about their birth. Special shoutout to Leigh, the most cray-cray villain I’ve read in a while. She’s less interested in the alchemical arts, and more interested in hunting people, which makes for some stomach-churning scenes.

That said, there were elements I was less keen on. For one, I didn’t actually enjoy the very first chapter of this book. McGuire starts at The End (which, from a structural point of view, is a pretty good choice considering that the following chapters are fairly slow as the plot and characters are built). Roger and Dodger are together, adults, and Dodger is close to death. The world is falling apart around them, and although this is the culmination of the story – it felt like too abrupt a beginning for a book which has a consistent and delicately spun storyline.

I also wasn’t keen on a plot point whereby Roger dates another character – it was necessary for the story but seemed wholly odd for the character. And the alchemical side of the novel was just a bit too complicated for me to comprehend easily – while I was aware of its foundational need in the story, there are scattered chapters from Asphodel Baker where seemingly Roger and Dodger are aligned with a fictional Zib and Crowgirl – and that lost me. If anyone can explain that link to me, would be much appreciated!

As always, I had multiple pages of quotes notes and some of the writing is so good I can’t help but include it here, even if just to elevate myself by association (some spoilers – stop here if you haven’t read it!): 

“Her smile is the first brick in what they will someday call the improbable road.”

“Sorrow is knowledge.”

“His claws, draped in affection and wrapped in velvet, are sharp enough to slaughter the world.”

“The old fool forgot the lessons of Blodeuwedd and Frankenstein: never create anything smarter, or more ruthless, than yourself.”

“Asphodel Baker rewrote the world by writing a new world into existence.”

“until consciousness slips away from the man whose name was not Smith, and life follows shortly on its heels.”

“Words don’t mean anything without someone to understand them. Numbers just are.”

“Two years ago, he would have accepted voices in his head helping him with his homework as so natural that he’d have told everyone about it, cheerfully unaware that some things are best kept secret. Two years from now, he would think hearing voices meant he was going crazy and would claw himself to ribbons trying to make it stop. This is the perfect time.“

“The more effort they put into deciding what kids are going to do or think or be, the more things go wrong for them.”

“Words disappear without a trace. That’s what makes them so powerful. That’s what makes them so important. That’s what makes them hurt so much.”

“Dodger feels the moment Roger’s presence leaves her mind the way she’d feel a cotton ball being pulled out of her ear.”

“She was born in stillness; she will die in motion. Everything between those points is the tension of the coiled spring, the held breath, the knife in the process of being drawn.”

“Later, he’ll wonder how he missed the intonations she was using, the quiet finality of what should have been an ordinary conversation. Later, he’ll blame himself, knowing this was all his fault. Later, he’ll realize how broken she was.”

“she will have a blister where he kissed her.”

“She’s supposed to be the brave one. It’s the compensation for her also being the breakable one.”

“California has its own weird scent profile, a combination of eucalyptus and oleander and desert heat masquerading as human paradise.”

“For the first time in his life, he’s a guest here. You really can’t go home again. Not all the way. No matter how hard you try.”

“You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle. You’d never survive.”

“She’s so wrapped up in watching them go that she never glances toward the window; she doesn’t realize that they’re not alone. That’s a pity. It might have saved her life.”

“Smita looks down, and the knife is found”

“She’s an earthquake forced into the shape of a girl, and as the door swings shut behind them, he wonders whether the fault lines at the heart of her are about to give way completely.”

“The glass window at the center of the door has melted, running out of its frame like thick, twisted honey.”

“Boring, balding, hidebound old men don’t deserve to change the universe. They think they do, but boring, balding, hidebound old men have always believed they deserve absolutely everything.“

“Their past is littered with the unburied bodies of the people they chose never to become.”

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