I’ve been meaning to read some of Seanan McGuire’s books for a long time, but – do you ever get that thing when a book or author comes so highly recommended that you’re scared of reading it because it might not live up to the hype? Well, I’m ace, and Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway is one of the few books that’s consistently recommended as ace rep, so – you get the picture. But Middlegame is a new book, stand-alone and – fascinatingly to me – had a Hand of Glory on the front, so I checked it out.
I am SO glad I did. Lucky, lucky, lucky me, the nerd who loves alchemy and weird mindscrewy nonsense, I picked a book that manages to combine a children’s novel, Conceptual Alchemy, goth sensibilities and the unmaking of reality into a shockingly coherent, gripping narrative that also includes time travel. Hilariously enough, McGuire’s afterword includes that she wrote the entire book partially because her agent said the pitch didn’t make sense. The galaxy brain involved. I love it.
Anyway. Middlegame is a novel that makes very little sense until you get at least five or so chapters in; it’s a mastercraft example of “just go with it and then you start catching up” – exposition-lite storytelling, or in media res, however you want to describe it. I’m the kind of reader who can happily do this, filing away snippets of information until they make sense, and there’s nothing I hate more than an undisguised infodump. McGuire is clever – the infodumps are so sneaky in the beginning that they don’t register as that. First, you see two twins, one of them dying, the other struggling to figure out what to do. Then you meet Asphodel Baker, aspiring alchemist, creating something terrible and wonderful – a golem, or mannikin, or homunculus, whatever you want to call it. And finally, even later still, you meet the same mannikin, Reed, presenting a group of alchemists with his great quest; to embody the Doctrine of Ethos within a human form, and how he has managed to embody it into three sets of twins.
And thus, our story begins.
What’s the Doctrine of Ethos? Well, it’s kind of unclear, but that’s part of what makes it so fun. Nobody seems entirely sure. It’s the blueprint to the universe, clearly, or the Word of God, or the key to the center of everything – Really, you just kind of have to go with it.
If you think this all sounds like nonsensical gibberish, you won’t like this book. You may very well enjoy Roger and Dodger (yes, I know) and their complicated relationship; they’re the best kind of separated-at-birth twins, with psychic powers and distant telepathy. Their ridiculous rhyming names are even mocked at length by pretty much every character including themselves – the only thing better than a trope is a trope with a sense of humour. But the core of the book, and the thing that brings me so much joy, is how blissfully and happily weird it is. This is a world of shadowy conspiracies and twisty timelines, self-fulfilling loops, faerie logic mixed with questionable science, and Alice-in-Wonderland aesthetics married to the frightening ups-and-downs of turbulent adult relationships.
If this review got you interested – good! You’ll like it! And if you’re confused? Chances are, the book wouldn’t be your thing anyway. Welcome to the trip.
Trigger warnings for this book include: a semi-detailed suicide attempt, abandonment issues/triggers, reality warping/unreality stuff, mind control, gaslighting, threat of hospitalization and a few extended murder scenes that freaked me out much more than usual murder does.