Middlegame

Image of Middlegame
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
May 7, 2019
Publisher/Imprint: 
Tor.com
Pages: 
528
Reviewed by: 

“Carrying McGuire’s signature voice, Middlegame takes the reader through fantastic yet dark childhoods that blossom into a grim, powerful godhood. Readers cannot help but be mesmerized.”

Deep in an underground laboratory, a rogue alchemist—the product of yet another mad alchemist who pieced him together from spare parts—has a dream. He will create children with unspeakable powers, but raise them in a lab so they are completely under his control. He will then proceed to take over the world.

The trouble is that his pet twins keep not living up to their potential. Some are too pliant, some too rebellious. Some die if they’re kept apart. Some simply can’t be controlled. As any good researcher would do, Reed the Alchemist decides to send a few pairs of twins into the wild, separated as far as the continental US will allow, and see if being raised as normal children will help with anything.

What ensues is a strikingly dark yet comforting story of separated siblings trying to find their way back to one another, of rebuilding broken, lonely lives with found family, mystical quests, and the familiar-yet-exciting trope of running from one’s destiny.

The book spends a great deal of time with the siblings as they grow up, and it is this attention to detail that gives the book such firm grounding. Roger the linguist and Dodger the mathematician (yes, their names rhyme for a reason) are alive with color and character the moment they appear in the narrative. McGuire’s ability to breathe deep familiarity into her child-characters is strong throughout the book, and readers will find themselves drawn into the twins’ world and struggles.

The fantasy elements are muted but still fantastical, and the weaving of alchemy, chemistry, and magic well balanced. The magic system (if it can be referred to as such) is the least fleshed out of the elements, but its vagueness adds to the mystery and charm:

“The improbable road is different. The Impossible City is not enlightenment, but something more, for the enlightened have no need for power, and the City is power incarnate. Whoever holds the City will hold the world.”

Middlegame relies heavily on time travel, and this portion of the plot is masterfully done. Multiple timelines and effects weave throughout the book, both teasing and enchanting and aggravating, and culminate into a final showdown that drips with tension. Due to the complexity of the time structure, readers will find the time travel better elucidated than the Impossible City:

“When you cuckoos break the laws of reality, it creates a soft spot before it scars, The world is out of order. It wants to get back into order, and that gives me more flexibility than I’d normally have.”

Tension is sharp throughout the book, especially in scenes involving Roger and Dodger together. Readers will ache along with the characters as they are repeatedly driven apart, and cheer at their every subversive meeting.

The pacing of the narrative does begin to flag slightly in the middle, but even this is noted and called out as relevant to the worldbuilding:

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

And indeed, the ending of the book would not hatch well at all if not for the solid buildup provided in the middle sections. The payoff for getting through Roger and Dodger’s university time is substantial and gory and somehow also, incredibly satisfying.

Carrying McGuire’s signature voice, Middlegame takes the reader through fantastic yet dark childhoods that blossom into a grim, powerful godhood. Readers cannot help but be mesmerized.

Finally, there is no better summary for the tone and thesis of Middlegame than the text itself:

”We need to let my terrifying ex-girlfriend tell us how we’re supposed to manifest a primal force of reality before asshole alchemists set us the fuck on fire.”