Middlegame

by Seanan McGuire

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2019
ISBN: 1-250-19551-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 528

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Roger and Dodger are cuckoo children, alchemical constructs created by other alchemical constructs masquerading as humans. They are halves of the primal force of the universe, the Doctrine of Ethos (which is not what the Doctrine of Ethos is, but that is one of my lesser problems with this book), divided into language and math and kept separate to properly mature. In this case, separate means being adopted by families on opposite coasts of the United States, ignorant of each other's existence and closely monitored by agents Reed controls. None of that prevents Roger and Dodger from becoming each other's invisible friends at the age of seven, effortlessly communicating psychically even though they've never met.

That could have been the start of an enjoyable story that hearkened back to an earlier age of science fiction: the secret science experiments discover that they have more power than their creators expected, form a clandestine alliance, and fight back against the people who are trying to control them. I have fond memories of Escape to Witch Mountain and would have happily read that book.

Unfortunately, that isn't the story McGuire wanted to tell. The story she told involves ripping Roger and Dodger apart, breaking Dodger, and turning Roger into an abusive asshole.

Whooboy, where to start. This book made me very angry, in a way that I would not have been if it didn't contain the bones of a much better novel. Four of them, to be precise: four other books that would have felt less gratuitously cruel and less apparently oblivious to just how bad Roger's behavior is.

There are some things to like. One of them is that the structure of this book is clever. I can't tell you how it's clever because the structure doesn't become clear until more than halfway through and it completely changes the story in a way that would be a massive spoiler. But it's an interesting spin on an old idea, one that gave Roger and Dodger a type of agency in the story that has far-ranging implications. I enjoyed thinking about it.

That leads me to another element I liked: Erin. She makes only fleeting appearances until well into the story, but I thought she competed with Dodger for being the best character of the book. The second of the better novels I saw in the bones of Middlegame was the same story told from Erin's perspective. I found myself guessing at her motives and paying close attention to hints that led to a story with a much different emotional tone. Viewing the ending of the book through her eyes instead of Roger and Dodger's puts it in a different, more complicated, and more thought-provoking light.

Unfortunately, she's not McGuire's protagonist. She instead is one of the monsters of this book, which leads to my first, although not my strongest, complaint. It felt like McGuire was trying too hard to write horror, packing Middlegame with the visuals of horror movies without the underlying structure required to make them effective. I'm not a fan of horror personally, so to some extent I'm grateful that the horrific elements were ineffective, but it makes for some frustratingly bad writing.

For example, one of the longest horror scenes in the book features Erin, and should be a defining moment for the character. Unfortunately, it's so heavy on visuals and so focused on what McGuire wants the reader to be thinking that it doesn't show any of the psychology underlying Erin's decisions. The camera is pointed the wrong way; all the interesting storytelling work, moral complexity, and world-building darkness is happening in the character we don't get to see. And, on top of that, McGuire overuses foreshadowing so much that it robs the scene of suspense and terror. Again, I'm partly grateful, since I don't read books for suspense and terror, but it means the scene does only a fraction of the work it could.

This problem of trying too hard extends to the writing. McGuire has a bit of a tendency in all of her books to overdo the descriptions, but is usually saved by narrative momentum. Unfortunately, that's not true here, and her prose often seems overwrought. She also resorts to this style of description, which never fails to irritate me:

The thought has barely formed when a different shape looms over him, grinning widely enough to show every tooth in its head. They are even, white, and perfect, and yet he somehow can't stop himself from thinking there's something wrong with them, that they're mismatched, that this assortment of teeth was never meant to share a single jaw, a single terrible smile.

This isn't effective. This is telling the reader how they're supposed to feel about the thing you're describing, without doing the work of writing a description that makes them feel that way. (Also, you may see what I mean by overwrought.)

That leads me to my next complaint: the villains.

My problem is not so much with Leigh, who I thought was an adequate monster, if a bit single-note. There's some thought and depth behind her arguments with Reed, a few hints of her own motives that were more convincing for not being fully shown. The descriptions of how dangerous she is were reasonably effective. She's a good villain for this type of dark fantasy story where the world is dangerous and full of terrors (and reminded me of some of the villains from McGuire's October Daye series).

Reed, though, is a storytelling train wreck. The Big Bad of the novel is the least interesting character in it. He is a stuffed tailcoat full of malicious incompetence who is only dangerous because the author proclaims him to be. It only adds insult to injury that he kills off a far more nuanced and creative villain before the novel starts, replacing her ambiguous goals with Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling. The reader has to suffer through extended scenes focused on him as he brags, monologues, and obsesses over his eventual victory without an ounce of nuance or subtlety.

Worse is the dynamic between him and Leigh, which is only one symptom of the problem with Middlegame that made me the most angry: the degree to which this book oozes patriarchy. Every man in this book, including the supposed hero, orders around the women, who are forced in various ways to obey. This is the most obvious between Leigh and Reed, but it's the most toxic, if generally more subtle, between Roger and Dodger.

Dodger is great. I had absolutely no trouble identifying with and rooting for her as a character. The nasty things that McGuire does to her over the course of the book (and wow does that never let up) made me like her more when she tenaciously refuses to give up. Dodger is the math component of the Doctrine of Ethos, and early in the book I thought McGuire handled that well, particularly given how difficult it is to write a preternatural genius. Towards the end of this book, her math sadly turns into a very non-mathematical magic (more on this in a moment), but her character holds all the way through. It felt like she carved her personality out of this story through sheer force of will and clung to it despite the plot. I wanted to rescue her from this novel and put her into a better book, such as the one in which her college friends (who are great; McGuire is very good at female friendships when she writes them) stage an intervention, kick a few people out of her life, and convince her to trust them.

Unfortunately, Dodger is, by authorial fiat, half of a bound pair, and the other half of that pair is Roger, who is the sort of nice guy everyone likes and thinks is sweet and charming until he turns into an emotional trap door right when you need him the most and dumps you into the ocean to drown. And then somehow makes you do all the work of helping him feel better about his betrayal.

The most egregious (and most patriarchal) thing Roger does in this book is late in the book and a fairly substantial spoiler, so I can't rant about that properly. But even before that, Roger keeps doing the same damn emotional abandonment trick, and the book is heavily invested into justifying it and making excuses for him. Excuses that, I should note, are not made for Dodger; her failings are due to her mistakes and weaknesses, whereas Roger's are natural reactions to outside forces. I got very, very tired of this, and I'm upset by how little awareness the narrative voice showed for how dysfunctional and abusive this relationship is. The solution is always for Dodger to reunite with Roger; it's built into the structure of the story.

I have a weakness for the soul-bound pair, in part from reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey at an impressionable age, but one of the dangerous pitfalls of the concept is that the characters then have to have an almost flawless relationship. If not, it can turn abusive very quickly, since the characters by definition cannot leave each other. It's essentially coercive, so as soon as the relationship shows a dark side, the author needs to be extremely careful. McGuire was not.

There is an attempted partial patch, late in the book, for the patriarchal structure. One of the characters complains about it, and another says that the gender of the language and math pairs is random and went either way in other pairs. Given that both of the pairs that we meet in this story have the same male-dominant gender dynamic, what I took from this is that McGuire realized there was a problem but wasn't able to fix it. (I'm also reminded of David R. Henry's old line that it's never a good sign when the characters start complaining about the plot.)

The structural problems are all the more frustrating because I think there were ways out of them. Roger is supposedly the embodiment of language, not that you'd be able to tell from most scenes in this novel. For reasons that I do not understand, McGuire expressed that as a love of words: lexicography, translation, and synonyms. This makes no sense to me. Those are some of the more structured and rules-based (and hence mathematical) parts of language. If Roger had instead been focused on stories — collecting them, telling them, and understanding why and how they're told — he would have had a clearer contrast with Dodger. More importantly, it would have solved the plot problem that McGuire solved with a nasty bit of patriarchy. So much could have been done with Dodger building a structure of math around Roger's story-based expansion of the possible, and it would have grounded Dodger's mathematics in something more interesting than symbolic magic. To me, it's such an obvious lost opportunity.

I'm still upset about this book. McGuire does a lovely bit of world-building with Asphodel Baker, what little we see of her. I found the hidden alchemical war against her work by L. Frank Baum delightful, and enjoyed every excerpt from the fictional Over the Woodward Wall scattered throughout Middlegame. But a problem with inventing a fictional book to excerpt in a real novel is that the reader may decide that the fictional book sounds a lot better than the book they're reading, and start wishing they could just read that book instead. That was certainly the case for me. I'm sad that Over the Woodward Wall doesn't exist, and am mostly infuriated by Middlegame.

Dodger and Erin deserved to live in a better book.

Should you want to read this anyway (and I do know people who liked it), serious content warning for self-harm.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-05-26

Last modified and spun 2020-06-15