Middlegame, the genre-blending new novel from prolific, bestselling, and much-awarded author Seanan McGuire, pivots on the realization of a long-running alchemical dream: one woman’s quest to incarnate the forces of the universe within a pair of siblings. It reads, meanwhile, like a unique alchemical blend of its creator’s prolific career: a bit of fantasy, a bit of sci-fi, shot through with melodrama and metafiction, and packaged as a mind-bending, time-altering, blood-soaked thriller.
As proof, for this is a novel concerned about showing its work, consider its component parts.
Brilliant but tragically female, considering she was born into the Victorian era, Asphodel Baker was an alchemist with answers for which the world was not ready. Her plan to embody the ancient Pythagorean Doctrine of Ethos was ahead of its time, so she set in motion a chain of events to see it come to fruition even long after she was gone.
Central to that plan was the creation of a series of children’s books outlining the keys to unlocking her vision, written in a code known only to Asphodel and her successors. That might sound familiar to readers of the Parasitology series, published under McGuire’s Mira Grant pseudonym, in which the the central truth about a rogue tapeworm epidemic is found in lines from an obscure children’s novel.
Middlegame‘s central storyline begins a century after Asphodel’s discovery and decades after her death, focusing on the culmination of her scheme via the work of the villainous debonair James Reed, her Frankenstein’s Monster of an apprentice who slew his maker and carried on her work.
Reed is closer than ever to rewriting reality, now breeding sets of twins destined to embody one half the doctrine each. The pairs include a mathematically gifted twin, and one with a way with words, each one half of a whole that, when united, could manifest and remake the universe. James has failed in his mission many times, but he’s getting closer, and regardless, he doesn’t bother himself with eliminating his failed experiments, even when they are living, breathing children.
Enter Roger and Dodger, one such set of twins, separated at birth to develop their unique traits on their own, until the moment when their minders are ready for them to come together. But Roger, a word wizard, and Dodger, the math genius, have a hard time staying apart. Through a telepathic connection, they inadvertently find each other in childhood, and despite the strangeness of looking out of one another’s eyes and speaking to one another from opposite coasts, they form an instant bond, each serving as the other’s pen pals, imaginary friend, and ersatz sibling off and on throughout childhood and adolescence.
On their own, Roger and Dodger are misfits, lopsided geniuses in a world not built for them; in finding each other, they blossom. Torn apart on more than one occasion (often through the intervention of James Reed and his inhumanly pragmatic followers, they continue to find their way back to the other in a narrative that zigs wherever you think it might zag. Soulmates, in the truest sense of the word. It’s reminiscent of McGuire’s Wayward Children series and, in particular, the rules of the Goblin Market, the portal world setting of in In an Absent Dream, in which every act has a price, and every favor creates a debt. (There are also hints of McGuire’s urban fantasy heroine October Daye and her “twin” May in this funhouse-mirror of a sibling relationship.)
In this bildungsroman to the apocalypse, Roger and Dodger mature, both separately and together, learning along the way that their respective prowess in languages and mathematics belie far more potent, earth-moving power. Their story jots in and out of timelines and from one point-of-view to another as the two peel away layers of deceit to learn who—or what—they truly are. The ultimate realization is more than simply jarring for brother and sister; it’s also dangerous—Reed and his horror-show are willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain control over subjects to which they’ve given, literally, all the power in the world.
The mood is tense, the stakes are unimaginable, and the consequences are frequently horrific. Middlegame cranks up the tension McGuire displayed in the zombie-fueled mayhem of the Newsflesh series (again, penned under the Mira Grant alter ego) and breaks the dial doing it.
In turns, this novel, this tragic, triumphant novel, will break your brain and your heart, as Roger and Dodger’s relationship ebbs and flows, and they come to grips with their grander destinies even as they navigate the painful intimacy of their unimaginable sibling bond. You’ll want to pay attention as you read it, and read it again—perhaps taking careful notes as you do—because Middlegame is the finest work to date from an author of consistently fine works.
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