Middlegame Ups the Stakes

Middlegame (Middlegame, #1)Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(4.75/5)

“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.

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Biting Back

Salt SlowSalt Slow by Julia Armfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this entire book in nearly sitting. Literally, I didn’t want to put it down! This book exposes the seams of the world and of daily life.

UPDATE: So I wrote tiny associative reviews for each story.

Mantis — 5/5 stars
Alternative puberty in the grand tradition of girlhood transformations. There is something in here about repressed girls suddenly being able to bite back at the invisible harm that power systems can do to them. (Or maybe I’m projecting my own Catholic baggage onto this story.)

The Great Awake — 5/5
Something beautifully psychological about this. Wistfulness and wishing. A sweet semi-unrequited love story at its core that encapsulated “almost.” Captures something universal living inside an surreal, alien-to-us shell.

The Collectibles — 4.5/5
Captures the way good friends are when living together, the way ideas kinda simultaneously form between 3 heads that all think a little alike but not quite, the kinds of telepathic leaps that get made. Something I noticed in this story is how it (and some other stories) end; some of the endings feel like they stop right at the point of no return, after which nothing will ever be the same, but then the story ends there. Likely just because that’s not what the story was interested in circling around, but as someone interested in consequences, that move stood out to me.

Formerly Feral — 5/5
This story teethers on the edge of absurdity but by surrounding our immediate main characters with a cast of absurdly horrific background characters — the homicidal neighbors — this story manages to lean decisively into the beauty and horror of making a real emotional connection. The unbecoming of girl and walk until they meet in the middle is fascinating to read.

Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax — 5/5
This is our world but tilted on its axis. Horror and realism despite the supernatural bend. Teenage girls and grown women desperate to be heard, understood, to be told its ok to let your fury and hunger spill over into entropy. A seduction of a kind. Glitter and blood and a mythology until itself. My favorite story in the collection.

Granite — 4.75/5
I understood this story more on my second read. The fragility of loving a man. Still undecided on how to fit the pieces of this story together — the neighbor, the boyfriend, the friends’ advice. Beautifully rendered, though, with imagery that took my breath away: “Morning sky. Gasp of purple, like the dark pit at the back of a throat. Day like a wallow. Promise of snow.”

Smack — 4/5
I enjoyed this for the portrait of Nicola and the look backward at her disintegrated marriage. The tone/genre felt different and certainly leaned more realistic. I love the imagery at the end. Think there’s a connection to be drawn between the fragile helplessness of jellyfish and Nicola… fragile with a sting? With some fight still in them both.

Cassandra After — 4.5/5
Structure felt more traditionally braided than the dreamy organic pace of previous stories. I felt conscious of how we moved through time. I do like the rendering of a complex relationship and the musing on being so float-y on the surface on someone’s life that you almost miss their death.

Salt Slow — 5/5
Surreal, horrifying. The most horrifying parts are the body horror but the implications of analogous real-world violence. I don’t know how this couple ever feels normal again, but the end felt like a benediction, an answer to the violence implicit elsewhere in this story.

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My Continuing Book-ish Affair with the Owens Family

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t love this one *quite* as much as I loved Practical Magic, but honestly, given how much I loved that one, that’s a pretty high bar. At any rate, this book has a lovely beautiful and believable backstory for the aunts, and I understand more why they are as they are in the original book. I think I would’ve liked to have seen more peripheral story, because this story does take place r an interesting time in history, but where history does enter, it’s always very meaningful and deliberate. I’m looking forward to rereading Practical Magic sometime with my new knowledge.

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A Fresh Angle and All That

A Corner of White (The Colors of Madeleine, #1)A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

SPOILERS AHEAD. And now that you’ve been warned, on with the review! So, as a YA fiction enthusiast who is also tired of tropes, this is the fantasy book I’ve been waiting for. There has never been a book I’ve more wanted on my bookshelf. There was such an original plot. It was so beautifully written. Everyone in this book lives in a dream world, dreaming that they’re Lord Byron or Isaac Newton and dreaming about colours and Colors and missing fathers and swan-mothers. Some lines I love:

“When Jack cast his gaze over Madeleine’s former life he caught glimpses of sails swelling in gusts of winds, reindeer stamping and breathing mist, diamonds woven through plaits and spilling like raindrops down a window.”

“Jack had gathered the names together by the stems; he’d arranged them in a vase that he kept to the right of his mind. At night, before he fell asleep, he’d breathe in the fragrance of each, the details that Madeleine had shared.”

“a whole bubbling brook sort of name”

“What hinders the fixt stars from falling upon one another?… She had to stop the stars from tumbling together… A sky full of stars was relying on her to keep her back straight, her shoulders firm, her head nodding now and then, her voice calm and polite… because as long as she did that, her mother would be okay… All she had to do was keep the stars fixed to the sky.”

“The thing is, Elliott, you were like a piece of magic. You held the fixed stars in place for me and you stopped them from falling. If I open another letter from you, I think they might start to tumble.”

There is this really clever extended metaphor revolving around Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, and Ada Lovelace, and how their lives parallel the lives of Madeleine, Jack, and Belle. What starts out as an annoying school assignment becomes this heartbreaking condemnation when Madeleine starts recognizing the cracks in her own worldview, realizing that her father is not some glittery hero and her mother is not a lost swan in a tower.

I also really appreciate how the romance was handled in here, mostly Madeleine and Jack’s relationship. In general, I am not a fan of romance in YA novels because nothing feels original anymore, nor does it ever feel realistic, or it will takes over the actual plot. What made this feel fresh was how both Madeleine and Jack both accepted that they worked better as friends at the end of the book. The power of Madeleine’s journey is that once she “wakes up,” she sees that Jack is remarkable just as he is, a teenage boy in Cambridge, her friend. Elliott and Kala’s relationship was tolerable for me. It felt very sentimental at times, but the burst of clarity from Elliot’s perspective injected some much-needed realism into their relationship. Elliott realizes that his feelings for Kala don’t make either of them as wonderful or perfect as they see each other; or else, how could he have cheated on her? It seemed a healthier alternative to seeing each other as perfect.

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“Flipper-Footing”

The Brides of Rollrock IslandThe Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Low-key spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

After a few recent disappointments, it was so refreshing to read a book like this. The language was so lovely and I adore how new words are constructed. Listen to this — “when they had found flipper-footing they began to gallop toward me, as sheep hurry over their snowy field to a fresh-dropped hay bale, or pigs cross a sty at the clink of a slop bucket.” Flipper-footing. I have a new favourite word.

I had before never ventured into the realm of selkie fantasy fiction, but I’m glad to start here. Lanagan really captured the silent heartbreak of tearing these seal-women from the sea, the injustice and the cruelty of it. Frankly, by the end of this book, I would’ve quite happy to stand around with Miskaella and Trudle and watch the men stay miserable. Having stolen wives for at least two generations (my math is probably not up to snuff), I thought they deserved all the misery they got. But maybe I’m just being very uncharitable.

The book certainly did a good job of illustrating what an unhealthy love looks like, because none of these marriages, save that of Dominick’s mam and dad, were healthy. Misskaella enchanted the men and trapped the women; the men could not look beyond themselves enough to set their wives free; the seal-women loved their husbands but loved the sea more.

The seal-wives were extremely docile for much of the book; stealing their skins seemed to sap them of the spirit to protest their circumstances. That was frustrating, especially since only Daniel seemed to have the guts to release them. However, the seal-women found strength enough to do what was needed to escape and protect their children.

I also appreciate the glimmer of hope there at the end, with Lory and Daniel’s second meeting, him smiling. While slightly contrived, it was refreshing, like two souls breaking out of the shadows of the last generation. And Trudle… I didn’t expect to ever like her, but the final chapter from her perspective was so moving. I was happy that she was content as the island revived around her, that she discovered the last of Misskaella’s secrets.

All in all, a lovely read and one I’m proud to have on my bookshelf.

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A Gem on my Bookshelf

The Accident SeasonThe Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

SPOILERS AHEAD. Okay, now you’ve been warned. This book was beautifully written. As another reviewer pointed out, the magical realism and even the prose reminded me of Nova Ren Suma, particularly her Imaginary Girls. The language was so lovely, so much like poetry. From a craft standpoint, I loved the construction of some of these sentences — the repetition, the way certain sentences fall like stones in a pond, the cold delivery of magical lines. Some stand-out lines:

“Alice wasn’t the first to jump, but she was the first to fall. It started with dares. Dare you to roll down the hill. Dare you to touch a nettle. Dare you to jump across the stream.”

“So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season, / to the river beneath us where we sink our souls, / to the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling, / one more drink for the watery road.”

“His mask is askew. Nick’s wolf face is on the ground in front of me. Its eyes are empty sockets. It has no mouth but it is still whispering: if you’re going to do this just give me one last chance you know you want to come on if you really want to end it you owe it to me just give me one last—”

“I am wet to the skin, I am shivering and my wings are shaking. I am cold stone behind my mask. I might not be human at all.”

“I remember a slap across my cheek in a hallway; I remember hands on my shoulders pushing me down, keeping me underwater; I remember being told to forget.”

This book perfectly straddled the line between our reality and magical realism. The accident season was the overwhelming shadow that hung over the entire book, but as you read, you start to get the sense that the accident season is an illusion that Cara’s family believes so that they don’t have to face the truth. Slowly over the course of the book, it becomes clear that something awful happened in their family, and no one can talk about it. The metal man with the evil smirk and Cara’s memories of almost drowning and being slapped as a child and Alice being “bundled up warmer than October every summer, afraid of showing her body.”

Cara’s blindness plays out in a similar way. At the start of the book, there’s the sense that she’s not seeing the world for all his ugliness, that she can’t face it, and it hits like a hammer when you realize she doesn’t see, doesn’t remember the ugliness of her childhood because her sister’s abuser told her to forget or he’d hurt her, and what else can a child do but forget when faced with an adult trying to drown them. When Cara starts to see, the horrible puzzle pieces start to come together, how Nick is hitting Alice and she takes it because she’s been miserable for so long, she doesn’t know any other way to live, she stays with him because at least this is the pain she chooses rather than the pain someone more powerful inflicted on her as a child.

“I laugh at the accident season, at the accident of Alice hitting her head on Nick’s mantelpiece, at the accident of the bruises on her legs, at the accident of the cuts on her arms. I laugh at the accident of the broken glass a few years ago that somehow managed to slice her wrist in a perfectly straight line. I laugh at the accident of Sam punching the wall in the secrets room. I laugh at the accident of the day I almost drowned. I laugh at the accident of my uncle’s death. Seth knew too, I think. That’s why he pushed him in… I stop laughing.”

I don’t know what else I can say. This book is a trip, but every heart-wrenching moment came together perfectly. The fact that not everything can be explained away at the end was lovely. The mystery of Elsie, their little guardian angel. The magical costume shop and the ghost house that listens to Cara’s wishes.

Just read it.

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