How is one supposed to play a game when one doesn’t know the rules? Roger and Dodger, two children with strange abilities, have to find out in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame before the game kills them. Because they don’t know the rules of the game—and neither do we—there is a long learning curve to this book. I’ll admit that I didn’t full understand what was going on until almost the halfway point of the novel. Readers who are patient, however, will be rewarded with an incredible, magical, and terrifying journey to the cutting edge of alchemy.
One day, when he is seven years old, Roger hears a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Dodger, who Roger doesn’t believe is real until she helps him with his math homework and lets him see the world through her eyes. The two share a deep connection. They balance each other. Roger knows words. Dodger knows numbers. Roger pumps the brakes when Dodger runs ahead. But then then their connection is broken when a strange, frightening woman shows up at Roger’s house with threats if he doesn’t stop talking to Dodger. Every time the two children reconnect as teenagers and young adults, it seems like someone is always standing in their way. They are pawns in a very long, very dangerous game.
As Middlegame unspools, we watch as Roger and Dodger experience what appears to be multiple lives. It’s impossible, but a lot of what happens in this book is impossible. Alchemy sneers at impossible. Books that reset like this can be difficult to read because it’s easy to lose track of the overall story or to figure out what’s going to be important later on in the novel. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, in these kinds of books, if we even are in a different timeline because the differences can be very subtle. A character zigs instead of zags and a butterfly gets to cause a storm somewhere. Reset books are just the kinds of books I relish for the challenge of reading them. That, and I am fascinated by the way that little decisions can have huge consequences.
While Dodger and Roger connect and disconnect, we visit the other players in the game and learn more than the two children know about what’s going on. Some readers might want to do some extra reading about alchemy before diving into this book because the villains in this book are after much more than the philosopher’s stone. They also speak in metaphors without explanation, in the best tradition of actual medieval alchemists. If it weren’t for the fact that this book is full of magical creations and events, Middlegame would’ve been a purely intellectual exercise in the form of a thriller. Even though the first half of the book is bewildering, the magic and the excellent character development are more than enough to keep readers going. At least, I hope so, because Middlegame is one of the most brilliant books I think I’ve ever read.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.