Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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Publisher: Tor.com

Publish Date: 7 May 2019

Page Count: 492 pages

For the #ReadersWithoutBorders June readathon I’m currently reading the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel and novella. Check out The Worlds of SFF for more information and the chance to win a book or three!

Middlegame is an incredibly ambitious book that is universal in scope. I’ve been sitting on this review for weeks trying to decide exactly how I feel about it. Best prepare yourself for my book report-iest review ever, as there is a lot to explain before giving you my thoughts.

In Middlegame, a whole mess of information is thrown at the reader very early on, and it doesn’t quite resolve into something sensical until later. The book opens with a scene from the final chapter, followed by an excerpt from a fictitious children’s book and three questionably related quotes before going back to chapter 0, which is still 100 years before the primary events of the story. To make things even more complicated, McGuire will soon be publishing said children’s book using the same pseudonym as the author in Middlegame.

Thankfully after the initial set-up, the narrative becomes more consistent if not entirely linear or chronological, and McGuire’s piecemeal introduction resolves into the foundations of a complex story. If you would prefer to experience the thrill of untangling this for yourself, feel free to skip the following synopsis (while spoiler-free it explains a fair bit about the first chapters).

“… the Doctrine of Ethos, as described by Pythagoras, held that certain musical instruments and modes could influence the balance between Logos (rational behavior) and Pathos (emotional thought). Later alchemists came to see this as the interaction between the two halves of the human heart, and more, as the balance between language and mathematics: the two methods through which Man has always been able to influence and even command Nature. The Doctrine must thus be viewed as the most dangerous and most desirable of alchemical incarnations. The people who are first able to seize control over the Doctrine shall command all things.”

Asphodel is a talented alchemist who believes she has discovered how to incarnate the primary forces of the universe in human form, and that by doing so, she can control reality itself to create her idea of paradise. Understanding that this will be more than a lifetime of work, Asphodel uses alchemy and spare body parts to create Reed, her semi-immortal successor who continues her legacy after her.

Before she dies, Asphodel publishes Over the Woodward Wall, a soon to be well-known children’s book that tells the story of Zib, Avery and their journey to the Impossible City. Through magic or alchemy or quantum mechanics – I’m still not sure which – the book’s successful existence paves the way for alchemical world domination and bends reality in a way that enables twins, one the embodiment of mathematics and the other of language (a loose reference to The Doctrine of Ethos), to ascend and together become the personification(s) of the universe and masters of reality.

Rodger and Dodger are one such set of experimental twins, engineered by Reed and separated at birth so that they can grow up independently, oblivious to their true purpose until they come into their abilities. But Rodger and Dodger are inseparable by their very definition, and they can communicate mind-to-mind from an early age.

The bulk of Middlegame follows Rodger and Dodger’s efforts to reconnect over the years, and Reed’s attempts to control them and thus claim dominion over the universe.

I had to do quite a lot of research to gain some context for this book as, in my opinion, it is first a work of concept before character or story. What I’ve decided is that Middlegame is to philosophy what steampunk is to technology. McGuire has dredged up alchemical theory, the precursor to modern chemistry, and Greek philosophy (specifically Pythagorean theory – it’s mentioned throughout the book), to create a world where these theoretical frameworks turn out to be real. So instead of a steam-powered metropolis, we get mad alchemists-cum-scientists using a combination of alchemy, philosophical doctrine, quantum mechanics, humorism and even European folklore in their conquest of reality.

This is an incredibly fascinating idea for a book, and it certainly blurs the lines between fantasy, alternate history and sci-fi in a way that is fun to argue about and impossible to agree on. But therein lies my issue. McGuire did such a great job of throwing mathematics and chaos theory at me that I wanted to believe that this was a work of sci-fi – that it was feasible for twins with rhyming names to, through some sort of complicated physics that is over my head but nevertheless real, achieve an avatar state and control the fabric of reality. I guess it’s a testament to the author’s ability that a piece of fiction duped me?

For most of the book, I patiently awaited a more detailed explanation from McGuire, but this never arrived. As a result, it became easy to poke holes in the story, point out where the rules of McGuire’s magic (science) system were flexible and convenient to the plot, and to feel that the whole concept is diluted by too many references to real-world ideas, to the point that it could be interpreted as elitist. For example, am I meant to already know that the book title is a reference to chess, or that the hand on the cover is a Hand of Glory from European folklore, or be familiar with ancient Greek paradigms of musical theory? Perhaps McGuire just wanted to mess with my head by making her magic system sound as science-y and history-y as possible. In which case well done, you.

SO. All of that being said, I’ve decided that I do like this book, even though I was left feeling a little confused and disappointed by what I perceived to be a lack of follow-through. It’s an incredibly unique work of fiction that I could see the Wachowski sisters adapting to the big screen. I’ve landed on 3.5 stars as, while I’m likely to recommend this book to other people out of appreciation for the concept, it wasn’t a wholly satisfying reading experience for me.

Particularly in the case of this book, I feel like my experience was a unique one. I would suggest going into this book expecting a work of pure fantasy with a very technical underpinning, and read up on Pythagoras!

Coincidentally, I stumbled across a song while looking up The Doctrine of Ethos that explains the book rather well. I don’t know if it was a source of inspiration, but I later realised it is also quoted in the book.

Trigger warning: suicide

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2 thoughts on “Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

  1. Only 3.5 stars for one of my all time favourite novels? *cries* (I kid, I kid. :P) I think Middlegame is a fascinating example of how reading can be such a personal and subjective experience. Personally, I found it a work of character over concept! But I like how we can both recognize it is a novel with unique strengths, though as readers we connected/didn’t connect it to it in our own ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Aw I’m glad you enjoyed it! I know a lot of people have.
    To be fair I don’t think it would have been high up my TBR if I hadn’t been doing a Hugo Awards reading challenge, so I definitely agree that its all about personal preference! And absolutely no doubt – McGuire is a fantastic writer.

    There was some interesting tension between Rodger and Dodger but I think because their relationship was essentially engineered I didn’t feel as emotionally invested.

    Liked by 1 person

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