Entries from May 2019 ↓

Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

\"\"We may be only a third of the way through 2019, but I\’d be surprised if anything manages to surpass Seanan McGuire\’s upcoming novel Middlegame as my favorite book of the year.

McGuire has said that it took her ten years of publishing novels to develop the skills she needed to write Middlegame.  I\’ve been reading her books for most of that time, and looking back I can see how she\’s been building up to this.  She has pulled together the best aspects of her various other series into one cohesive whole.  Middlegame has the intimate, emotional character arcs of her Wayward Children novellas, melded with the tight, edge-of-your-seat plotting of her Mira Grant books and the gradually epic scope of her Toby Daye series, grounded in the love of folklore and children\’s stories that runs through all of her work.

Honestly, if you like her other stories half as much as I do, \”Seanan leveled up\” is probably all you need to hear.  But there are so many things I love about this book, both in how it resonated with me and how well McGuire crafted it.  I\’m going to start by discussing some broad character elements and the first couple chapters (which are available on Tor.com), but I\’ll put a spoiler warning before I talk about anything past that.

Growing up as a \”gifted kid\”, I connected really strongly with Roger and Dodger\’s childhood experiences.  The alienation from their peers, the strange cocktail of pride and concern from their parents, the incomplete solace of long-distance friendships – all of it felt familiar to me.  (And as someone who can grasp mathematical concepts at an intuitive level, but who finds language to be filled with bewildering and terrifying ambiguities, Dodger in particular is dear to me.  I have very rarely felt so seen.)  The way the characters stumble through building a connection with each other resonated with me, too. McGuire deftly and compassionately portrays their vulnerability and their shared, aching need to be understood – and the defensiveness they sometimes adopt in response.

Middlegame\’s plot is no less compelling than its characters.  One of McGuire\’s strongest skills as an author is grabbing the reader\’s attention right from the first page, and never letting go.  Middlegame starts with \”Book VII: The End\”, containing a single chapter entitled \”Failure\”, taking place \”five minutes too late, thirty seconds from the end of the world\”.  Before we even read the first line of prose, we\’re already feeling both curiosity and tension.

Then the first line is \”There is so much blood\”, in case you had any doubt that this is a Seanan McGuire book.

The first chapter only lasts two pages, but McGuire makes the most of them.  By the end, she\’s already established the plot\’s stakes, given us a brief and tantalizing glimpse of the twin protagonists and their particular talents, and hinted at a few of the story\’s fantastical elements.  Then we rewind – not to \”Book I\”, but \”Book 0\”, over a hundred years prior, where McGuire anchors the other end of her plot with another short chapter, \”Genesis\”.  In both chapters, she has crafted the exposition with precision: she dangles just enough information for us to have all these things to wonder about, but not enough to have a solid idea of what any of it means.  We\’re left with a pile of questions and the promise of answers to come – a promise which the book more than delivers on.

And here\’s where I put a spoiler warning – there\’s one particular element of the story that I want to discuss in a bit more detail, but it goes beyond the first few chapters.


Okay, so it\’s pretty clear early on that the first \”Failure\” chapter is a future that can be avoided.  Roger and Dodger are definitely older in that than they are when we next meet them as young children.  The same chapter recurs a few more times across the book, each time with subtle differences, and we realize that Roger and Dodger are somehow rewinding their timeline in order to avoid that failure, like reloading a save file in a video game to avoid the bad ending.  Despite my default suspicion towards time-travel stories failing to address paradox effectively, I find it a pretty cool plot device when used well – I\’ve also seen it deployed (with a very different feel) in the webcomic Skin Horse, and enjoyed it there too.  In this case, the text of each failure chapter is almost identical, but the small changes from one to the next show us that Roger and Dodger are slowly pushing this event towards a better conclusion.

But that\’s not all McGuire does with the repetition of that scene.  The initial scene left us with a lot of questions, but on every subsequent iteration, we have a little bit more sense of what\’s going on, and we\’re also reminded of the things that we still don\’t understand.  That feeling of grasping something that previously eluded you is gratifying, like stepping back from a puzzle you\’re solving and seeing a new element of the picture come into focus. It\’s one of the many things that I enjoy most about reading science fiction and fantasy, and it\’s one of the many things I loved about this book.  And if you\’re the sort of reader that enjoys rereading stories multiple times to pick up all the little bits of foreshadowing and nuance that you missed your first time through, I think you\’ll find Middlegame to be particularly rewarding in that sense as well.

Middlegame comes out tomorrow, May 7th, 2019.