Although I’m reading through it slow as molasses, I freaking love McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway series. I know that she has written like, so many, books, so I’m not sure why I was drawn to this one as my next McGuire read, in particular. But whatever the reason, it’s been on my TBR since it was published a few years ago. And when I was looking for a creepy-but-not-too-much October read, this is the one that called to me.
“You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle.”
Roger and Dodger are twins, one (Roger) skilled with languages and words and the other (Dodger) with a special gift for numbers and math. They’re twins, and kinda mostly human but not quite, though they don’t know that. Middlegame follows their lives as they grow up with separate (adopted) families, but with a connection so strong that they keep finding and re-finding each other. Which is exactly what they were made to do, eventually, when created by the mysterious (and diabolical) Reed, who implanted them each with half of a “Doctrine” that, when jointly manifested, will allow them the power of, essentially, gods. A power that Reed plans to harness and use himself, but Roger and Dodger, along with a helping hand from the equally mysterious (and dangerous) Erin, realize how deeply that must be avoided at all costs.
My goodness this story was freaking riveting, despite the fact that, for a lot of it, the reader is just as in the dark about what is actually happening as Roger and Dodger (which could easily have been deeply frustrating and confusing – it takes a lot of reader trust to just go with it and believe that, eventually, McGuire will bring it all together and actually explain things). This is definitely a book where you need to be prepared to just go with the flow of the story and believe it will unfold as it needs to, even if there are major questions or points of confusion along the way. It’s not a writing technique that works for every reader, so be ready for that, but McGuire executes it with precision and skill, so if you are ok with the style, know that it’s worth it and well done here. That being said, there are a few things that never really do get fully explained. Or well, not in explicit detail. Specifically, the “Impossible City” that the Doctrine is meant to grant access to – I wasn’t ever sure if it was a real place or a more of a conceptual one. Perhaps this is because Roger and Dodger didn’t really know either and they’re our MCs/narrators. And I could totally see that lack of surety being deeply annoying for some readers. Similarly, the “magic” that Roger and Dodger wield (which I’ll talk more about in just a second) and the alchemy aspects (specific to Reed’s work) were presented as more of a “just accept it as it is” reality, without explicit explanations of where it came from or how it works. And again, I feel like, with the general suspension of disbelief and paced unfolding of the rest of the plot/information, it was ok for me, I just stayed suspended, but I imagine not all readers would be happy with that experience.
I want to take a moment to talk a bit more about Roger and Dodger as well, because despite the blurb, the book focuses very deeply on their connection with each other past the “magical” and often in a much more mundane/everyday sort of way. They are really phenomenally and deeply rendered. They develop together and separate from each other, but always in parallel, in really fascinating ways. And I found it really interesting that even with that depth of focus, I still felt like I held them at a distance, like a study/experiment, in a way that made me really invested in their story, but with a strange lack of attachment to them as characters. Like, whether or not they survived the story didn’t feel that urgent to me, but how the story wrapped up in general did feel urgent. Relatedly, the idea of human manifestations of language and math (and chaos, if we consider Erin as well, which I definitely do), is so unique. And the specific ways those manifestations happened…I couldn’t get enough of that honestly. The power in words and math, the way that Roger and Dodger can manipulate them but only to their full extent when combined is conceptually on point and really holds much deeper meaning than just a device in this magical sci-fi adventure story, when you really think about it.
While this story was paced much slower than I had anticipated, and was more human than magical, I was (as I mentioned) riveted by the story-telling itself. It was complex and creative, and while it took awhile to get there, the culmination felt worth it to me. It was also a wonderful nod and homage to a more traditional “fairy tale,” with a great dark and creepy vibe (though one that was totally stomachable for anyone, like myself, who is easily terrified). If you’re willing to buy into this book and wait for the delayed gratification of things coming together, and you’re looking for atmosphere over fast-pacing (though, don’t get me wrong, with a very reasonable amount of adventure and drama), and you are feeling some abstract and academic magical content, then McGuire’s literary alchemy in Middlegame will definitely hit the spot for you.
Considering the length of this one, it makes sense that I’d have a bunch of quotes that I want to share:
“What better way to hide your teachings in plain view than to encode them in something that would be beloved of children the world over. … [She] rewrote the world by writing a new world into existence.”
“Sometimes the easiest trick is hiding something in plain sight. That which can be found without looking can’t possibly be dangerous, after all.”
“…that’s the trouble with grown-ups. The more effort they put into deciding what kids are going to do or think or be, the more things go wrong for them.”
“There are ways to travel quickly, when one has power, and purpose, and the willingness to damage the world to achieve one’s goals.”
“If they had to lose themselves to walk this road, would it really ever be able to lead them home?”
“Lies are nothing. They’re the currency she uses to pay for the rest of her life.”
“The past is never really past. It’s always lurking, ready to attack the present.”
“…sometimes it’s not the words, it’s the way they’re used.”
“…time is a concept invented by men who didn’t want everything to keep happening at once. Time is irrelevant.”
“Here is a secret about powerful men, one they would prefer to go unspoken: their arrogance is one of the greatest forces in the universe. Even the most paranoid among them see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe, and this creates cracks through which the clever may insinuate themselves, changing the story around them.”
“Magic doesn’t have to be flashy and huge. Sometimes, it’s the subtle things that are the most effective of all.”