A lot of books can’t wait to reveal all of their secrets. Others dole them out slowly, reeling the reader in little by little. And while unintentional disorientation is the sign of bad writing, intentional disorientation can be fun. It requires a little more work and patience from your reader, but once you figure out the game, it can heighten the pleasure inherent in reading, the tension and relief of revelation.
MIDDLEGAME takes the ‘low and slow’ approach, revealing its secrets bit by bit. It’s effective because McGuire centers a complex story structure around compelling and simple character stakes to make an unusual story.
Asphodel Baker, a talented alchemist who was ignored and underestimated because she was a woman, had a big idea. She wanted to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, which McGuire describes as the “balance between language and mathematics” (kindle location 108). Basically Baker believed that these two forces shape the world, and could bring magic back into it if they were incarnated.
By the time our story starts, Asphodel is dead and her work is continued by James Reed, the heir she constructed for herself from dead bodies and alchemy. Reed creates several sets of twins, each twin embodying either Language or Mathematics. Wary of their potential developing too early, he separates each set.
Roger and Dodger (and yes, they know, the rhyming is an abomination) are part of Reed’s grand plan. Roger is Language. Dodger is Math. We first meet them in medias res, experiencing a moment of failure, although we are not sure what they have failed at. In medias res might not even be accurate. We meet Roger and Dodger at the very end of their lives.
And then everything restarts. MIDDLEGAME is structured around each “restart,” weaving a tale that builds slowly, as Roger and Dodger race to learn enough to find the correct timeline that will allow them to find the Impossible City (aka, their magic) before Reed can turn them to his own ends.
While the plot may be complicated, what makes MIDDLEGAME ultimately effective is that the character stakes are simple. Roger and Dodger need to find a timeline where they haven’t broken faith with each other, where they love and trust each other enough to push through the final stretch of the Improbable Road and on to the Impossible City.
MIDDLEGAME kept me guessing, but in a good way, as I traveled through the timelines. McGuire keeps her readers oriented so that you know about as much as the protagonists, and not a whole lot more, which makes you even more sympathetic to them.
My main critique would be that the ‘aha’ moment didn’t quite come together for me at the end. Specifically, the lack of clarity about Reed’s goals also made some of his decisions about the twins slightly confusing to me. Overall, I think in part a more solid grasp of what the Impossible City stood for would have helped make some moments at the end have more impact.
As I mentioned earlier, the characters and their relationship are really what drive the story. Stories about time travel, magic, violence, and multiverses can get caught up in those ideas. McGuire’s MIDDLEGAME shines because her book centers on the depth of Roger and Dodger’s relationship. And there’s plenty to focus on.
In MIDDLEGAME, McGuire centers a complex story structure around compelling and simple character stakes to make an unusual story.
Their relationship is complicated, not just because they are the incarnations of universal forces, but because they are people, who make sad and wrong and scary choices all the time. We learn that in a lot of timelines, the ways in which they push each other further away have world-ending consequences. Watching Roger and Dodger navigate their relationship is beautiful, and delicate, and very real as they learn to stop running away from each other and start running towards each other.
Fans of McGuire will continue to enjoy her writing and specific aesthetic in MIDDLEGAME and it’s a great introduction for new readers to her engaging style.
- Recommended Age: 12+
- Language: A moderate amount of strong language
- Violence: Self-harm, attempted suicide, a lot of murder, gunfights, death
- Sex: None