Sometimes the mere description of a book isn’t enough to encourage you to read it. And sometimes you’re right to avoid a particular book based on its description, but sometimes you’d be missing out. Case in point: Seanan McGuire’s newest book, Middlegame. If I weren’t familiar with the author (more about her later, if you didn’t already recognize her name from my other reviews), I’d be looking askance at the concept of the book. Twin characters named Roger and Dodger? Isn’t that a little cutesy? One of them, Roger, is all about the power of words and is a genius with words, and the other, Dodger, is a brilliant mathematician who can do anything with numbers? Doesn’t that ring familiarity bells with King Azaz and the Mathemagician of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, respectively, in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth?* And the tagline, “Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained” just makes me think of any number of annoying books about would be masters of the universe. If this book weren’t written by Seanan McGuire, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.
I’ve already written about McGuire’s brilliant Wayward Children series, including Every Heart a Doorway (winner of a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award), Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I know from that series (and the Incryptid series which mixes humor with suspense and supernatural beasties) that Seanan McGuire does not write cliches, and does not write cutesy, and so I took a chance on this book despite its description.
Not surprisingly, given the author, the book is much better than you would think. In fact, it’s a terrific read, one that surprises you at almost every turn, with characters you care about and an outcome that’s far from obvious and yet ends up being very satisfying indeed.
Roger and Dodger are creations of a rogue alchemist, designed to embody the forces of language and mathematics so that ultimately, when they’re brought together (under specially controlled circumstances), they will embody the forces that control the universe (the Doctrine), and if they themselves are being commanded by James Reed, the alchemist in question, he will be able to control the universe. Classic mad scientist (or in this case, mad alchemist) stuff.
It’s necessary for the purposes of the experiment that the two be raised apart, so Roger is adopted and brought up by parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Dodger is raised in Palo Alto, California. Almost from the outset, however, the two of them break the rules of the experiment, becoming “quantum entangled” with each other from across the country, being able to see through each other’s eyes and communicate without talking. This starts when they’re very young, and starts again when they’re seven. Reed uses his creation, Leigh (who’s the most terrifying creature in the book, completely without ethics or morals and delighting in some pretty horrible destruction), to break the two of them apart, but since they’re the most promising pair of “cuckoos” he’s created, he’s not willing to have them destroyed, yet.
Roger and Dodger are both fully realized characters, similar to each other and yet different. Roger’s the more socialized of the two, as befits his skills with words and language, and Dodger is a little more the eccentric mathematician and chess prodigy who doesn’t deal well with other human beings, but neither one of them is a cliche and the bond between them is strong enough to withstand even the efforts of Leigh and her minions to keep them apart and keep them from realizing their potential too soon. Of course, sooner or later they do find each other, they do work together, and they do set out to embody the Doctrine, as time ticks down and disaster chases after them.
One of the fun aspects of the book is the use of quotations from a famous (in the world of this universe) children’s book (think The Wizard of Oz) which turns out to have been written by the alchemist’s creator and is actually a guidebook, if you understand it, to what Roger and Dodger are ultimately doing. There are parallels between the fantastic characters in those excerpts and the people (and almost-people) our protagonists encounter themselves.
I don’t want to tell too much of the plot, because there are many surprises along the way (and even though the book appears to begin at the climax, things are not what they seem, so you have to keep reading even if you think you know where things are going). Suffice it to say that things work out the way they should, the ending is very satisfying (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that were ruined by an ending that felt tacked on or that felt like a cheat), and it’s a thrilling and fun read.
So don’t choose the book on its description or its tag line. Choose it based on Seanan McGuire’s great talent for storytelling, and you will not be disappointed, I guarantee it.
*Not that I have anything against The Phantom Tollbooth, which is one of the few children’s books I own in hardcover, and which both my daughter and I can quote from prolifically. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, do. You’re in for a treat. This, however, has nothing to do with the review at hand.