Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Her smile is the first brick in what she will one day call the improbable road. Today, now, in this moment, they are beginning their voyage toward the Impossible City… The deed is done. It’s too late to turn back now.”
This is one of those books that redefines what a single book is capable of achieving alone. This book is comprehensive, moving through such a range of concepts, layers upon layers of metaphor, worldbuilding, and timelines that it feels like at least three books in one. I have so many questions for Seanan McGuire: did she outline this book? Did she outline the up-and-under stories, too? What did those outlines even look like? In what order was this written? How did the manuscript change from draft to draft?
This book is a feat. Every single event in here is the culmination of all previous choices, and this is both explicit and implicit. I truly can’t count how many timelines exist on the page, because for every explicit timeline reset, there were more that happened between the lines of the page. The final series of events is as inevitable as it is improbable.
The writing in here is so strong, even at the sentence-to-sentence level. I love the parenthesis and how McGuire makes her punctuation work for her to tell the story and imply how much information is being consciously acknowledged, what’s actually a secret, and what’s unknown to the characters. This is a technique I see more in fanfiction than published work, and it works super well here.
McGuire has this way of sinking down into her characters’ perspectives until it feels like I, as the reader, am occupying some small corner of the characters’ minds, watching it all play out but unable to change anything. I do think this comes through much more strongly with the twins, their friends, and allies, and less so with Reed and Leigh, but seeing as the book focuses so much more on the twins’ side of the story, that makes sense, even if I wish we’d had a little more “sinking down” into the other characters’ heads.
Every emotion in here is a gut-punch. As the book goes on, we get deeper and deeper into one character’s perspective, and I absolutely didn’t expect them to become my favorite, but god, I adore them. This book obviously does many things very well, but if I had to pick one thing that worked perfectly, it’s the fact that in a book full of horrific tragedies, there’s this one tragedy that stands out. It’s not foregrounded very often, but when it does, the bitter fact is this: if a tragedy were to befall the twins, they’d have each other and all the power in the universe as consolation, but not everyone has something as consolation. Sometimes, everything that ever mattered to you is ripped away, and there’s emptiness in the world, and you’re so tired and just want to rest, but you can’t… and it doesn’t even matter. (I have a lot of feelings about this minor storyline.) (Hands down, my favorite part of this book.) (I would fight a war for this character.)
There’s a fascinating commentary on how intelligence gets gendered. Dodger and Roger both observe how the world just doesn’t know what to do with a mathematics genius who’s a girl, and how she just doesn’t fit the world’s idea of a smart girl. A girl can be book-smart, but math-smart just isn’t normal. This fades as the characters grow up and instead becomes a commentary on strength, on who gets to weak and who have to always, always be strong. Who is allowed to fall down and cry and stay fallen, and who can’t. I’m still thinking my way through the idea of strength, to be honest, because most, if not all, of the characters in here can fit that; there is very little rest in here for anyone.
Having finished the book, I’m especially interested in the parental characters and in the contrasts between their two sets of parents. Also, I feel like one of the parents was characterized a little inconsistently. One of the twins has this fascinating book-long journey about when a lie is permissible, but I thought the implication at first was that this kid needs powerful lies to save them because they’re terrified on their abusive parent. As in, why do you need a life to save your life when you are still a literal child? But it was only there at the beginning, and then they have a normal parent-child relationship for the rest of the book. I just feel like the implication was in there from a previous draft… oooo, or maybe a previous timeline?
There are some things I wish we’d gotten more of or spent more time on, especially toward the end of the book. For as long as it is, some things were barely in the book. The Up-and-Under as a metaphor for alchemy and a parallel for Roger and Dodger was excellent when delivered side-by-side with the main story, but when the main story begins using Up-and-Under terminology literally, the logic of the story falls apart for me. I still enjoy it! But I do think we needed more explanation for what is literally happening. The end feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the book for this reason. I had lingering questions, like what exactly happened between Asphodel and her enemies? Why would manifesting the Impossible City in their world be a controversial idea? Also, what even is the Impossible City? “The whole damn Impossible City is about to fall on your head” sounds super cool, but I still have no idea what that actually would look like, physically, literally, etc.
This is second time I’ve read a Hugo-nominated book and been so blown away that it’s revised my standards, so the lesson I’m taking is this “read all the nominees” challenge I’m doing should be a yearly routine.