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‘Middlegame’ brings its A-game

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The practice of alchemy is one of those things that most people are familiar with even if they don’t necessarily know that they possess that familiarity. Certain basic notions – turning lead into gold, the Philosopher’s Stone – have transcended their protoscientific origins and made their way into the common vernacular.

But what if alchemy worked? Really and truly worked? And what if its adherents still walked among us, operating at the behest of secret cabals devoted to both preserving and elevating the practice? What if the alchemists sought to rule not just the universe, but the very laws that governed it?

That’s the world we get with Seanan McGuire’s “Middlegame” (Tor, $29.99). But our entry into this world is not through alchemy writ large, but rather through its products and practitioners and (sometimes) both. It is a story of magic by way of science – or vice versa – but it is also the story of what it means to have gifts you don’t understand. It’s about living in a world where the possible is possible, but only to a scant few. It’s about being the sort of special that scares just about everyone who doesn’t share that kind of specialness.

It’s about the choices we make and the consequences, both near-term and far-reaching, of those choices.

Roger Middleton is a gifted youngster living in Massachusetts. He has an immense talent for language. He has an innate facility with words, a grasp of the power that comes with narrative communication. He’s a shy kid, but not unreasonably so.

Dodger Cheswich is a gifted youngster living in California. She is a mathematical prodigy, someone with an incredible talent for numbers. She has an unerring instinct for how figures fit together, using that instinct to understand and predict the world around her.

Roger and Dodger are twins, separated at birth and deliberately placed in homes a continent apart. Their gifts are not the product of anything natural, but rather are the culmination of a generations-long experiment by James Reed. Reed is perhaps the most accomplished alchemist in the world, having devoted his life to the idea of creating human (or human-like) manifestations of certain universal alchemical concepts.

He is also not a human being. James Reed is an alchemical construct, built to the exacting specifications of his master Asphodel Baker, considered one of the greatest alchemists to ever live. But her gender led to many of her ideas being dismissed; she did her best to disseminate them, largely through a children’s book.

But when a telepathic gateway opens in the minds of the two children, an ability to communicate with one another over the vast distance between them, Roger and Dodger discover just how special they are. And despite the efforts of the powers that be to hold off that connection, to continue that separation until the time is right, the bond between them is too powerful. Again and again, they are drawn together – and drawn into danger.

As they grow into adulthood, parting and reuniting and parting and reuniting, they become more and more aware of the uniqueness of their circumstances, until it becomes clear that if they are to ever be truly safe, they are going to have to fulfill their destiny, but on their terms.

“Middlegame” takes a non-traditional approach to time; the story isn’t told in a strictly linear fashion. The beginning is near the end, and we pay numerous visits to that ending over the course of the story. The chapter headings do a nice job of keeping the reader’s place on the timeline, although they aren’t really necessary – McGuire juggles the narrative back-and-forth expertly.

The story switches perspective as well, with chapters related from the points of view of Roger and Dodger, yes, but that of Reed; we even get to look through the eyes of other supporting figures on occasion. It might sound confusing – and if it was even a little less well-executed, it would be – but again, McGuire deftly shifts from POV to POV without missing a beat.

(There’s a fantastic through thread that involves excerpts of Baker’s children’s book – titled “Over the Woodward Wall” – and serves as a lovely companion to the narrative. It’s a lovely continuing detail that seasons the rest of the story just beautifully. One of the smartest choices in a book full of smart choices.)

The developing dynamic between Roger and Dodger is the heart of the book. All of the other stuff – the alchemical detail, the time-shifting, the clever stylistic efforts – is great, but none of it matters without the relationship between our heroes. It’s remarkable, really – even as the fantastical elements start to pile up, we never lose the feeling that these are two genuine kids. Preternaturally gifted kids, but kids nevertheless. And the evolution of their dynamic as they grow into teenagers and young adults is just as genuine. They are compelling, fully-realized characters about whom we are invited to care – their honest interplay is as magical as anything in the book.

It has been a while since I read a work of genre fiction that resonated with me quite like “Middlegame” did. The complexity of the world building is impressive, with a real depth of thoughtful detail. It’s stylistically challenging in the best way, making the actual reading experience all the more engaging. And yet, it’s the relationships that have stayed with me, the idea of true and unbreakable connection and what something like that actually means.

All in all, Seanan McGuire definitely brought her A-game to “Middlegame.”

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 June 2019 16:20

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