When I first read the synopsis for Middlegame, my immediate thought was: Give it to me. Because, damn did this book sound good. Super-human intellectual twins and alchemists seeking to use them to become gods – it all sounded right up my alley. Plus, early reactions were flowing with five star ratings. It seemed like there was almost no way I wouldn’t enjoy it. And yet, somehow, this ended up being exactly the case.
Who, What, Where?
Roger and Dodger are twins. While Roger has always had an aptitude for words and languages, his sister views the world in numbers and equations. However, having grown up at opposite ends of the country, the two only meet when they realise that they have a psychic connection with one another. Little do they know that they are the carefully crafted experiments of an alchemist named James Reed, designed to embody the two halves of the Doctrine of Ethos, language and mathematics, which is believed to be the key to commanding all things. Reed seeks to use these abilities to access a place known as The Impossible City, and in doing so to gain unimaginable power.
I’m Sorry, but Huh?
If there is one emotion I associate with this book, it’s confusion, because good lord was I confused. Confused and then frustrated. This is one of those stories that holds back a large amount of information from the reader to allow for big dramatic reveals later. The problem with this approach here is that not only is the plot dealing with very complex ideas, but the answers to the big questions take so long to arrive (or never do), that you spend most of the book wondering what the hell is going on and why. What is the Impossible City? How does Reed intend to use Roger and Dodger’s powers to get there? What kind of power will reaching it grant him and why does he want that power? Somebody throw me a line here!
Slow & Messy
Middlegame is over 500 pages long and, until the climax finally starts to kick into gear, it’s a pretty slow 500+ pages. A large chunk of the plot is devoted to following Roger and Dodger through different periods of their lives. They interact with each other, go about their day to day activities, and steadily develop their abilities. Other than a few sparse dramatic events which separate them for periods, such as *spoiler* a suicide attempt, *end spoiler* that’s about it for a long time. At first, it’s not so bad, but after a while it starts to become boring and repetitive, and left me almost wanting to give up altogether. I’ll admit that things did pick up eventually, but by that point it felt like too little, too late.
*Spoilers* Another thing that bothered me was the plot’s use of time travel. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of time travel, but in Middlegame, I found its use messy and frustrating. At some point in the book, you realise that time is repeatedly being rewound to try to alter certain outcomes. Because of this, aside from a few crucial, fixed events, most of the story you’ve read thus far hasn’t happened as you read it. Like, WHAT??? Worse, the timeline continues to chop and change even after this point. Cue pulling my hair out…now. *End spoilers*
Middlegame gives us a lot of quality time with Dodger and Roger, from their childhoods through to their post university years. For this reason, I do have a degree of appreciation for the two as characters. McGuire manages to make them feel distinct from one another and the relationship between the two is quite a nice element of the story, especially in the early years. Yet, as individuals, perhaps Roger more so than Dodger, I can’t help also finding them somewhat dull and unengaging. By the time they had reached adulthood, I realised that while I thought they were okay people, I just didn’t have all that much of an interest in or emotional connection with them as characters.
As villains, my enjoyment of Reed and his associate, Leigh, was massively dampened by the fact that I had no clue as to what their motivations or plans were beyond: get to The Impossible City. Besides their vaguely described goals and the lengths they go to achieve them, the two don’t really have much to their characters, leaving them feeling very flat.
The one character that I can genuinely say I liked was Erin, the embodiment of Order and part of another failed set of experimental twins. She may come off a bit crazy at times and definitely does a few downright horrible things, but she’s also smart, strong and a somewhat sad character in that she’s been placed in a rather awful situation but does the best she can with it.
Middlegame is an ambitious and complex novel which on first appearances had a lot of potential to be something great. There are likely to be some readers out there who will really enjoy what it has to offer, but unfortunately the slow pacing, confusing world building, and difficulty connecting with the characters meant that this wasn’t the book for me.
*** ARC received from Tor via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.**