Book Talk: 'Middlegame' by Seanan McGuire - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Middlegame' by Seanan McGuire

Alexander Wallace finds a psionically linked geek couple within the pages of Middlegame.
Seanan McGuire was an author with whom I was totally unfamiliar until I joined my local science fiction association and read the nominees for the 2020 Hugos. One of them was her Middlegame, currently the first in an unwritten series. I had no preconceptions of McGuire’s work beyond that which I had read for the novellas category that year, and ended it pleased to say that this book is absolutely worth reading. For that year, I was divided between this and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, the ultimate winner (and very much worth reading in its own right). McGuire won neither of her nominations, but she very much deserved this one.

Middlegame concerns the machinations of a certain mad scientist named James Reed, who for his own nefarious purposes creates a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, who are psionically linked. He then sends these two children to families on different sides of the United States, and waits for his plan to unfurl.

The twin on the East Coast is Roger, a virtuoso of language. The other of these is Dodger, a mathematical prodigy. As they grow up, they begin to realize that they can send messages to each other mentally, and determine the nature of how exactly they are related and the nature of the plan into which they had no choice in being its essential components. This is a book defined more than anything else by the interaction between these two siblings, both lost in their own way in a confusing and hostile world, seemingly so different from one another. They first are fascinated by each other, then loathe each other (trying to ignore each other in the process), and then see how essential they are to each other, and how much they are alike. Middlegame is about a bond between a brother and a sister, fraternal twins, and the predations of those who see them as less than human.

You first meet these children when they are young, still in the twentieth century. As the book progresses, they grow older and time passes, first into the nineties, then the noughties, and then the new tens (one wonders if the plot could even have happened in these new loathsome twenties). You will notice many little signifiers of these times; for those of my age (I was born in late 1996) it will feel more than a little strange to see the age of my childhood recreated as yet another historical period, given how relatively recent they were (and it’s not the only book in recent times to apply this treatment to that decade).

James Reed, the mad doctor and the primary antagonist of the book, is perhaps its greatest weakness. He is, to put it frankly, rather flat. He does not have the deep motivations of many great literary villains, nor is he particularly sympathetic. For a book that shined so much in the depth of its protagonists, the shallowness of their oppressor was a distinct lost opportunity. In any case, he is not nearly enough to ruin the book.

I will not spoil anything regarding the twists and turns of the plot, but it is written well. It takes you to some very interesting locales, particularly a certain old structure in a city in California where the climax takes place; I could visualize everything in that pivotal sequence, and it was vivid. I say this as someone whose enjoyment of literature comes very strongly from my ability to visualize the action.

I finished Middlegame with an absolute understanding of why so many people voted for this for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Seanan McGuire's powerful story of family and belonging, and an intense connection between people, is one about finding connection in a cruel and hostile world, where those with power spin designs for those without. In a time of great loneliness, this book is a comfort.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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