Book review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire


Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

It’s 3 am.

You hear a noise downstairs.

You go to investigate.

It’s me sitting at your kitchen table.

I ask you to sit down.

Slowly, reluctantly, you do.

I draw in a small, sharp breath and start telling you how the thought of this book still stirs such a storm in me—a thousand smithereens of joy and yearning and grief—all of it seething and bleeding and writhing. How the story settled like sediment in my mind, and, how it was days before I could pull my senses home to my body—most of them, at least. Enough to stop the spinning and bail out the excess feeling that threatened otherwise to capsize me.

What’s the book about?” you may ask.

Roger and Dodger have hidden their secret for so long, and worked so hard to be normal, but now the truth lay all around them in crimson arcs of gore written out across the ground.

But you need context. So, let’s try the ending again, writ sequentially.

Greed lies beneath all our ugliest transactions. Roger and Dodger are the product of an alchemist’s covetous desire to make the universe yield to his sounding by controlling the elemental forces of creation. His name is James Reed, and he’s been trying for over a hundred years to follow his master’s teachings and harness a universal concept called the Doctrine of Ethos—by splitting it into a pair of kneadable human bodies, one of whom is endowed with an extraordinary deftness for math, and the other an extraordinary dexterity for language.

Ever since Roger had heard Dodger’s voice in his head as clearly as if an unseen person had pronounced the words, he’d stumbled onto something that refused to be believed: Roger has a twin whose name rhymes with his own and they can communicate via quantum entanglement. Their situation was one they drew consolation from as they marveled at it. But things were seldom that simple. When the artfully placed leaves blow away, revealing the shining jaws of the trap beneath, their amazement slips, taking on an unfamiliar, uncomfortable form. And the more Roger and Dodger fight against their destiny, they only draw it more tightly around their throats.

James Reed had cast the shining snare long before Roger and Dodger knew about each other, and it is closing, and they will be caught.

There is so much blood.” It’s quite a fitting opening sentence for a novel steeped in the eventuality of menace.

McGuire knows how to hold the reader spellbound. Her storytelling has its own energy and speed; it brings the tale into the room, with its dark and its chill. I resented spending time away from the novel. Like Dodger’s voice, it seemed to call to me, like a faint heartbeat, insistent and persuasive. Yet, I did not really chase after explanations, snatch at reasons, or make effortful attempts to connect thoughts. Instead, reading Middlegame was like being caught in a current, drifting along with the river’s twists and turns. I simply waited, with a mounting thrill of consternation and exhilaration, until the conclusion that had been inexorably readying itself in the depths came to the surface. I must warn you, however, that this book isn’t short on misery, tragedy or violence. Darkness is served up deliciously in this novel, and a tendril of fear for the characters often curled in my belly. But fear not, there is a happy ending. Perhaps, more uncertain than happy. In any case, the world will eventually run at its own pace again.

Middlegame is a complex, intricate clockwork of a story. But the novel’s structure is a tricky one, and our dauntless heroes aren’t the only ones destined to get their heads turned around here. The concepts in this book come fast, thick and tangled, seeming at first dreamy and obscure, like a sentence half translated into a new language. It’s the kind of tangle that you could easily make worse in your efforts to straighten things out. The past and the present often touch and overlap, and the story makes abrupt jumps ahead in time in sometimes-illuminating, sometimes-disconcerting or confusing ways. But McGuire supports all of that mind-twisting theory with deeply empathetic characters, and, even when the novel lags, the clarity of her prose and keenness of her dialogue slice through.

In the end, this is a book that convinces and compels—it’s honestly quite unlike anything that I’ve ever read, and altogether triumphant.

But what holds steady throughout the novel is how expertly balanced the pursuit of plot is with the pursuit of characterization. I am a reader who leans more towards character-driven stories, and to my delight, Dodger and Roger form the thread that holds the beads of this novel together. McGuire has given us a mind-constellating peek behind the workings of the universe, then distilled it into a quiet, intimate tale of twin siblings who, separated by miles and decades, have constructed between them a sense of unaccustomed security as impressive as a moated castle, but they alone knew how flimsy it really was.

See, Dodger and Roger were two sides of a single coin that could be thrown in the air and land on either side. They were quantum-tangled twins, each a presence that surrounded the other and protected them and was no less real for being—for years—invisible. The irony is as hard and cold as ax-fall, for their entanglement often only sharpened the hardship of their existence.

Middlegame takes readers through a journey of their obsessive years of curiosity, of waiting for their destiny to reveal its staggering answer to them, then the years of loss and confusion, when the blunted edges of their relationship had suddenly become cut-throat sharp, threatening to slip and slice them both if not handled with care, then the years of revelation when Dodger and Roger realize that their center of gravity have immutably shifted: from being one of one—alone, apart—to being half of something that would crumble if either side were cut away.

I felt such a keen sense of connection with the characters. With Dodger who could sense numbers and see their path in her mind, as though they were right there, waiting to resolve, like a kaleidoscope in need of turning. Dodger who feels losses most keenly, whose mind was a torment and whose chest was hinged like a gate and she had simply never noticed until Roger had spoken the word sister and filled an empty place inside her. With Roger to whom words were like a drumbeat constantly pulling at his pulse. Roger who understood the torment in Dodger’s eyes and carried it with him down the long roads of his life, who was always too acutely aware of how porous is the line that separated them. Such a current of love and rage and resentment ran between Roger and Dodger that at times the novel felt colored by it, while all else was drowned and forgotten.

Siblings, huh?

(I falter into a cutting silence.)

Well… I’ve taken too much moments of your time.

(I press the book into your hands.)

Just trust me.

4 thoughts on “Book review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

  1. I’ve looked at Middlegame on Goodreads before, but the blurb seemed kind of vague so I wasn’t sure if it was something I would like. I think you may have convinced me to pick this up now, though!


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