So, I’m not a huge Seanan McGuire fan (although I did love the first book in the October Daye series and hope I’ll continue to love the rest of the series) but this book had caught my attention even before it was a Hugo Award finalist. That striking cover, the synopsis – separated twins who, when working together correctly, can control the world? – and the general buzz made me want to pick this up. And it turned out to be pretty good. Not great but, you know, pretty good.
by Seanan McGuire
Published: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 528 pages
My rating: 6,5/10
Opening line: The gunfire from outside is louder and less dramatic than he expected, like the sound of someone setting off firecrackers inside a tin can.
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.
This book opens with the Bad Guys plotting an Evil Plan. A plan that involves creating twins who are supposed to embody the Doctrine of Ethos – which is essentially the power to control the world. The Bad Guys want that power and now it seems they have finally succeeded in breeding a pair that will manage to grow up and manifest it. In order to grow up just the way the Bad Guys want, Roger and Dodger (yeah, I know) are separated and given to different families who raise them as their own almost-normal kids.
It soon turns out that Roger is gifted with languages while Dodger is a maths prodigy. Oh, and they also find out they can communicate across the continent by closing their eyes and talking to each other. What others may see as imaginary friends, these two know to be the real deal. And so begins a tale of two lonely kids who find their best friend only when they close their eyes. It’s a tale of finding each other, of separation, of doing what’s right for the world, of looking out for each other and sometimes letting go of each other. It’s also about playing around with time and saving the world, of course.
Before I get into my gripes with this book, let me say that I enjoyed reading it. It’s by no means a short book and while there are many huge books out there that let you breeze through them in no time at all, this is not one of them. I don’t know how many times, while reading, I thought to myself “okay, get on with it already”. But that doesn’t mean that the long-ish chapters between the moments when something actually progresses are bad. As someone who likes character-focused stories, there was always something for me to enjoy in any given chapter. Roger and Dodger were both very likable protagonists and, although most readers won’t be able to identify with two wunderkind characters, it was easy to sympathize with them and want to follow them on their journey to adulthood.
I don’t know when I started seeing the potential in books I’m reading rather than just go with what’s there. I used to simply read and take what the author had chosen to put on the page, not imagine ways in which this story could have been told better or the theme could have shone more brightly. That’s happened to me a lot lately, and especially so with this book.
With two genius protagonists who each excel in their field, it would have been so great if the writing style reflected that. It’s a third person omniscient narrative, meaning the narrator often knows more than the characters do (and tells us) – that’s a pretty neat device to build tension but it doesn’t help all that much with character development. Had this been told in third person limited – in the viewpoint character’s voice – we could have gotten an amazing distinction between Roger’s linguistic acrobatics and Dodger’s mathematical assessment of the world. I would have loved to not only be told that they experience the world and express themselves differently but also to see it.
While narrative choice is one thing, dialogue should be another. Roger and Dodger, having been made into what they are, having grown up apart (even with the mental connection they share) should absolutely not talk the same. But they do. Roger especially should maybe, occasionally use all those words we are told over and over again he knows. The more I think about it, the more lazy the character development feels. As much as McGuire likes to repeatedly inform us that Roger is all about language and Dodger is all about maths, she doesn’t take much time to actually show her characters be that way. Dodger, to me, was a severely lonely, depressed girl with nothing in the world to hold on to except her work and Roger. Roger on the other hand came across as easy going, strangely successful with the ladies, and quick to make friends. And they talked exactly the same. Just like the side characters who aren’t prodigies.
None of that makes the story any more interesting or hurts the ideas presented here, but I still felt it was wasted potential and weak character development to have everyone speak the same. Real life people (prodogies or no) don’t all speak the same but two academic geniuses seriously should have the occasional quirk in the way the talk or think.
What bothered me even more, although it’s connected to the gripes mentioned above, is that the world building and magic system (if you want to call it that) is super wishy washy. I really loved the beginning of this book because it feels like the author has this all planned out and there’s a big scheme that I, as the reader, get to discover over the next 500 pages, unravelling it bit by bit. That promise was not kept, I’m afraid. The revelation what the twins are and why they were made comes early, and after that, the only mystery left is what happens if they do manage to manifest and actually become the embodiment of the Doctrine of Ethos.
Without spoiling the ending for you here, all I can say is that it all fell rather flat. It’s not a bad ending, it just isn’t as epic as it could have been. What with all the build up and the promise of great things, I was hoping for more than the book kind of trickling to a stop. Especially when I consider that this book is pretty damn big and spends a lot of its time repeating how Great and Terrible things can be once the twins manifest.
Now, I have to throw in one thing I absolutely adored about this (and which, in the long run, will probably lead to more disappointment on my part, but that’s a different story). The Alchemist who came up with the genius plan to put the Doctrine of Ethos into people was Asphodel Baker. It is also her Frankenstein’s-monster-like creation Reed who continues with her plan and made Roger and Dodger. To preserve her ideas in plain sight, Baker wrote a children’s book called Over the Woodward Wall of which we get to see snippets at the end of some chapters. And those snippets made me want to snatch a copy of this fictional book right away! The good news is, Seanan McGuire actually wrote the book within a book and it’s coming out in October 2020! The (probably) bad news is that I am now very, very worried that all the things we are told are coded into the childrens book won’t actually end up making sense. You see, Baker supposedly hid all her secrets in plain sight, putting instructions to world domination via Doctrine-manifestation into her children’s book. And because the world building in Middlegame was less than stellar, I worry that Over the Woodward Wall will be no different.
BUT! The little scenes we got to read from the book within a book were so engaging and promised such a lovely tale that I think I can enjoy it even when it doesn’t make sense in the larger world of Middlegame. I look forward to this so, so much!
(While McGuire is by no means the first person to do this, I couldn’t help but feel that she just copied Cat Valente – who is her friend – and what she did with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.)
But back to Middlegame. In the end, I think this book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. An epic sci-fi story or a slow character piece? Unfortunately, it did both of those things only half-heartedly. There are great science fictional ideas here but they were never properly worked out or explained in a way that made sense to me. Whenever things got tricky, the author just handwaved them away, saying things like “Dodger knew the math of this situation and did stuff” rather than work out an actual, believable sfnal way how she does this. I am totally fine with character-driven narratives and it was Roger and Dodger as people that I enjoyed following, but that, too, wasn’t done as well as it could have been.
This is just my opinion, but I believe McGuire should have waited to write this book until she had the required skill. It’s based on a really cool idea and it’s done well enough to keep me reading and want to know how it all plays out. But the execution wasn’t as great as it could have been and I can’t help but wish this had been done by another author, just to see what they would have done with it. It is a worthy finalist for the Hugo Award but with what it lacks in language and world building, I don’t think it can keep up with its stronger competitors.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good