'Middlegame' - Book Review

by Seanan McGuire
2019, 525 pages

The book posits a modern world very much like our own, but just before 1900 a woman called Asphodel Baker who was the world's greatest alchemist wrote a book called Over the Woodward Wall. She also created a man called James Reed, who would carry on her alchemical work. And he - he created Roger and Dodger, twin brother and sister, embodiments of words and mathematics. They're each placed with families on opposite coasts of the U.S. to deliberately keep them apart, although - without even knowing it - they want nothing more than to be together. The book is about them growing up, and about their accidental and deliberate meetings.

McGuire's prose is good, although she seems to have a love of repetition (Not Connie Willis level, but nevertheless). She opens the book with a later-on scene, Roger watching Dodger bleed out. "There was so much blood." A phrase she repeats many times throughout the book, and a scene that plays out in variations. That combined with constant mentions of the "Improbable Road" and the "Impossible City" reminded me of City at the End of Time with its rewinds and do-overs and twisty time. And I kept waiting for a revelation: always implied, it never arrived, and the book stumbled to a semi-happy conclusion that I found somewhat anticlimactic. Alchemy is always implicit in this universe: Roger and Dodger aren't quite human, they're the product of alchemy. And the "Hand of Glory" is used multiple times. Roger and Dodger never learn a shred of alchemy, and yet toward the end of the book they're still in California but it's somehow concluded that it's "The Water Kingdom" and they have to find its centre. Alchemy is with us every step of the way, but when it "manifests" (a word she uses a lot in the book), there's no explanation, clarity, or revelation ... just ... hand-waving.