by Seanan McGuire
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 24, 2020
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Seanan McGuire's Middlegame is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. I can't be sure if it's a stand-alone or if there will be sequels, but I suspect the latter, since she has multiple ongoing series already, and the ending leaves several questions unanswered. I do know there will be at least one spin-off book, one which is featured in Middlegame as having been written by one of the characters. More on that later. The main characters here are Roger Middleton and Dodger Cheswich, both adopted, but to families on opposite sides of the country. Roger lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an avid reader, a student of etymology. Dodger, in Palo Alto, California, is a mathematics prodigy. Their connection is one they later classify as quantum entanglement. At first, each thinks of the other as an imaginary friend, but evidence mounts that they are actually hearing another person in their mind, seeing the world through the other's eyes. Roger is color-blind, so experiencing the wonder of color through Dodger's eyes is a revelation. Trouble arises when it becomes apparent there are people who are intent on keeping them apart, both psychically and physically. Several times throughout their lives, both Roger and Dodger voluntarily break their link, but they eventually find their way back to each other.
Roger and Dodger are constructs, the creations of the alchemist James Reed, who is well over a hundred years old. He in turn was a creation of, and a student of, Asphodel D. Baker, one of the most accomplished alchemists of the 19th Century. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), she was opposed by the patriarchal nature of the Society of Alchemists. When she realized she would not be able to complete her work, she decided to hide her ideas and formulas in fiction. She produced a series of childrens stories about the Up-and-Under, whose protagonists were tasked with traveling the Improbable Road in search of the Impossible City. In this world, L. Frank Baum was a rival alchemist, whose Oz stories were intended as a counterpoint to Baker's. Excerpts from her first book, Over the Woodward Wall, are interspersed between chapters of Middlegame. In October, writing as A. Deborah Baker, Seanan will publish that title, and it can be pre-ordered from either Amazon or Bookshop. I would be surprised if that is not the start of yet another series.
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But back to Middlegame. It's a good book, and I can recommend it, but it's not without its faults. Number one on that list is the fact that with alchemy, and particularly Dodger's math prowess, she develops the ability to manipulate time, and it's possible Reed had that ability too. I should have noticed the clues earlier, such as those given in the first few pages. Events that are being described are not necessarily the first time those, or similar events, have occurred. At one critical point, Roger finds pictures he drew when he was younger, one with him standing next to Dodger, another without her. On that picture he had written over and over, "How many times?" When you realize the protagonists can call a do-over whenever their plans fail, it reduces the tension concerning their fate. Also, one of Roger and Dodger's handlers changes sides, intent on helping them rather than working with Reed. Erin, another construct from a previous generation of Reed's attempts to embody Baker's Doctrine of Ethos, continually tells them they have to manifest, to take upon themselves the powers of the Doctrine, yet she is not able to tell them what that actually means. How are they supposed to manifest, what powers are they supposed to imbue? It seems their creators don't even know, and are relying on them to figure it out on their own. In summary, it's entertaining, but also frustrating. In the end Roger and Dodger are talking about being absolutely sure they will be successful the next time (the last time?) they walk that improbable road. But even then, can readers ever be sure it is the last time?
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