I wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.
Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.
If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.
The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.
I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.
I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.
Rating: Middlegame – 8.0/10