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.
Genre(s): Adult, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction
Series: Middlegame [standalone with spin-off(s)]
Published by Tor.com on May 7, 2019
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➤ Content warnings (click to show)
major character death(s), blood, violence, torture, suicide attempt (off-page, non-graphic), self-harm (cutting), human experimentation & dissection, murder of a child, racism, sexism
You know those books that feel like they were written just for you or perhaps written by you in a parallel universe? That’s Middlegame, for me.
The premise — which I promise is way more nuanced and engaging than the synopsis makes it sound — incorporates a lot of concepts that I’ve been kicking around for almost as long as I can remember: complementary twins separated at birth, shadowy organizations with way too much power, manifestation/ embodiment of broad abstract concepts, and so much more. There’s mythology and folklore and alchemy and magic, intertwined in a fascinating novel that offers so much to dig into. Clues are laid out tantalizingly so that you can put together the pieces alongside Roger and Dodger. (Or not, if you don’t want to work too hard in your fiction-reading; that’s valid too.)
The characters are intensely relatable in very specific ways, and their relationships are fantastically dynamic. As a (former) so-called gifted kid myself, a language nerd and also a girl in STEM, I felt my own experiences reflected in the tension between love of learning/ knowledge and academic burnout. I wholeheartedly rooted for these protagonists who desperately want to do good even when it’s the hardest thing in the universe to pull off, even when they have so many near misses and it would be so easy to just give up. At the same time, we get a tough-but-persistent twin sibling relationship as well as many different forms of friendship and alliances, and just a very little bit of romance.
The writing itself is, unsurprisingly given how many works I’ve read by McGuire (who also writes as Mira Grant), also on point. Sometimes it goes a little too far, edging into cheesy or corny, but for the most part it flows easily and there are many moments where it sings, if you’ll pardon the cliché. I found the humor a bit reminiscent of Good Omens — though of course in McGuire’s own style, not just in a way that’s weakly trying to emulate another work. I was particularly impressed by the child POV, which is done in a way that comes across as earnest and unflinching rather than contrived.
As a speculative fiction standalone, Middlegame has as rich of a narrative as any series I’ve enjoyed. It left me wanting more but simultaneously knowing that a direct sequel couldn’t possibly be a substantial addition. Questions remain at the end: there’s closure but also ambiguity, a lovely balance that upholds the running themes of the novel and leave space for the reader to shape the story in their own image.
Conversion: 13.5 / 15 = 5 stars
Prose: 8 / 10
Characters & Relationships: 10 / 10
Emotional Impact: 9 / 10
Development/Flow: 10 / 10
Setting: 8 / 10
Intellectual Engagement: 4 / 5
Originality/Trope Execution: 5 / 5
Rereadability: 4 / 5
Memorability: 5 / 5