Marisa's Reviews > Middlegame

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
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it was amazing


“Her smile is the first brick in what she will one day call the improbable road. Today, now, in this moment, they are beginning their voyage toward the Impossible City… The deed is done. It’s too late to turn back now.”

This is one of those books that redefines what a single book is capable of achieving alone. This book is comprehensive, moving through such a range of concepts, layers upon layers of metaphor, worldbuilding, and timelines that it feels like at least three books in one. I have so many questions for Seanan McGuire: did she outline this book? Did she outline the up-and-under stories, too? What did those outlines even look like? In what order was this written? How did the manuscript change from draft to draft?

This book is a feat. Every single event in here is the culmination of all previous choices, and this is both explicit and implicit. I truly can’t count how many timelines exist on the page, because for every explicit timeline reset, there were more that happened between the lines of the page. The final series of events is as inevitable as it is improbable.

The writing in here is so strong, even at the sentence-to-sentence level. I love the parenthesis and how McGuire makes her punctuation work for her to tell the story and imply how much information is being consciously acknowledged, what’s actually a secret, and what’s unknown to the characters. This is a technique I see more in fanfiction than published work, and it works super well here.

McGuire has this way of sinking down into her characters’ perspectives until it feels like I, as the reader, am occupying some small corner of the characters’ minds, watching it all play out but unable to change anything. I do think this comes through much more strongly with the twins, their friends, and allies, and less so with Reed and Leigh, but seeing as the book focuses so much more on the twins’ side of the story, that makes sense, even if I wish we’d had a little more “sinking down” into the other characters’ heads.

Every emotion in here is a gut-punch. As the book goes on, we get deeper and deeper into one character’s perspective, and I absolutely didn’t expect them to become my favorite, but god, I adore them. This book obviously does many things very well, but if I had to pick one thing that worked perfectly, it’s the fact that in a book full of horrific tragedies, there’s this one tragedy that stands out. It’s not foregrounded very often, but when it does, the bitter fact is this: if a tragedy were to befall the twins, they’d have each other and all the power in the universe as consolation, but not everyone has something as consolation. Sometimes, everything that ever mattered to you is ripped away, and there’s emptiness in the world, and you’re so tired and just want to rest, but you can’t… and it doesn’t even matter. (I have a lot of feelings about this minor storyline.) (Hands down, my favorite part of this book.) (I would fight a war for this character.)

There’s a fascinating commentary on how intelligence gets gendered. Dodger and Roger both observe how the world just doesn’t know what to do with a mathematics genius who’s a girl, and how she just doesn’t fit the world’s idea of a smart girl. A girl can be book-smart, but math-smart just isn’t normal. This fades as the characters grow up and instead becomes a commentary on strength, on who gets to weak and who have to always, always be strong. Who is allowed to fall down and cry and stay fallen, and who can’t. I’m still thinking my way through the idea of strength, to be honest, because most, if not all, of the characters in here can fit that; there is very little rest in here for anyone.

Having finished the book, I’m especially interested in the parental characters and in the contrasts between their two sets of parents. Also, I feel like one of the parents was characterized a little inconsistently. One of the twins has this fascinating book-long journey about when a lie is permissible, but I thought the implication at first was that this kid needs powerful lies to save them because they’re terrified on their abusive parent. As in, why do you need a life to save your life when you are still a literal child? But it was only there at the beginning, and then they have a normal parent-child relationship for the rest of the book. I just feel like the implication was in there from a previous draft… oooo, or maybe a previous timeline?

There are some things I wish we’d gotten more of or spent more time on, especially toward the end of the book. For as long as it is, some things were barely in the book. The Up-and-Under as a metaphor for alchemy and a parallel for Roger and Dodger was excellent when delivered side-by-side with the main story, but when the main story begins using Up-and-Under terminology literally, the logic of the story falls apart for me. I still enjoy it! But I do think we needed more explanation for what is literally happening. The end feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the book for this reason. I had lingering questions, like what exactly happened between Asphodel and her enemies? Why would manifesting the Impossible City in their world be a controversial idea? Also, what even is the Impossible City? “The whole damn Impossible City is about to fall on your head” sounds super cool, but I still have no idea what that actually would look like, physically, literally, etc.

This is second time I’ve read a Hugo-nominated book and been so blown away that it’s revised my standards, so the lesson I’m taking is this “read all the nominees” challenge I’m doing should be a yearly routine.

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Reading Progress

July 13, 2020 – Started Reading
July 14, 2020 – Shelved
July 14, 2020 –
page 98
19.92% "The world of this book is.. wild. When viewed from an adult perspective, it’s sharp and ugly and infinitely dangerous, but it’s also so youthful. Dodger and Roger’s ages come through so well in their chapters."
July 14, 2020 –
page 132
26.83% "When Dodger is confronted with opposition, she doesn’t dodge, despite her name. She spins whatever shield she needs to keep barreling straight ahead and never deviates."
July 14, 2020 –
page 163
33.13% "This section is perfect, and my god, I could learn so much from reading Seanan McGuire’s passages."
July 14, 2020 –
page 177
35.98% "I’m so impressed with certain aspects of this book’s constructions. It’s so hard (for me, anyway) to follow what’s going on with the Impossible City. It’s metaphors, but it’s also real, and I don’t know where the line is. But the characters and their story, as fantastical as it is, is so grounded and emotional. They ground the book, so far."
July 14, 2020 –
page 178
36.18% "I’ve noticed this interesting stylistic quirk with the use of parentheses (also on pg 36) to denote secretive, unacknowledged thoughts. It’s common in fanfiction, and it’s a use I love but don’t see utilizes too often in print books. I applaud a writer making their punctuation work for them."
July 14, 2020 –
page 185
37.6% "“Lies are nothing. They’re the currency she uses to pay for the rest of her life.”

Aka, we’ve reached the part of the book where I want to leave sticky notes every couple of pages."
July 14, 2020 –
page 207
42.07% "Um. I’m not sure what just happened, but I’m marking it for later.

Oh. Oh wow. Never mind. I think I’m understanding now."
July 14, 2020 –
page 212
43.09% "Bless these parentheticals."
July 15, 2020 –
page 224
45.53% ":) I love that moment when everything I’ve been theorizing suddenly clicks into place."
July 15, 2020 –
page 233
47.36% "The banter is this book is EXCELLENT."
July 15, 2020 –
page 250
50.81% "!!!"
July 15, 2020 –
page 260
52.85% "There’s something about gender roles and who is “allowed” to be smart. We’ve got an image of smart boys who are good at math and smart girls who are good at literature, but this book raises the question of what if the reverse is reality? How do those gendered views of intelligence affect the children in question?"
July 16, 2020 –
page 356
72.36% "Living mausoleum.

Ouch, my heart."
July 16, 2020 –
page 368
74.8% "2 thoughts. The first thought is that the world, the concepts, and the timelines in this book are so comprehensive that I feel like I’m actually reading the third book of a trilogy. That feeling is likely compounded by the fact that this is the longest book I’ve read in years.

Second thought is this — I’m holding a library book, and I don’t want to give it back because I want to chew on this story forever"
July 16, 2020 –
page 415
84.35% "I have the feeling I’m going to be flipping back here over and over again."
July 16, 2020 –
page 422
85.77% "I have so many questions for Seanan McGuire. Did she outline this book? Did she outline the Up-and-Under stories, too? What did those outlines even look like? In what order was this written? How did the manuscript change from draft to draft?"
July 17, 2020 –
page 440
89.43% "...who exactly was supposed to be the slow one to catch on to reality?

Bookmarking this thought to dig into later."
July 17, 2020 –
page 453
92.07% "I didn’t expect to adore this character so much, but here I am. What a dark horse."
July 17, 2020 –
page 504
100% "The most painful tragedies in this book are the ones that happen just behind the page. The Alice and Frank Longbottoms of the story. The losses that accrue when you’re special enough to be useful but not special enough insulate, and the ways your grief is only ordinary, and you don’t even get the consolation of being the savior to soften the grief."
July 17, 2020 – Finished Reading

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