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'Middlegame' makes mathematical magic

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It begins with Roger Middleton and Dodger Cheswich. Twins, separated at birth, not entirely human. Telepathic twins, sporadically present in each other's heads and each other's lives. Destined (it seems, possibly by design) to never be long apart.

At the beginning and at the end of Seanan McGuire's new novel Middlegame, it is Roger and Dodger. He knows words. She knows math. That was how they first came together — Dodger popping up one day in Roger's head to help him with a math worksheet. As children, they grew up separated (him in Massachusetts, her in California), but were each other's imaginary friends. As they grew, they became so much more. Confidants. Best friends. Separated by miles and occasionally by circumstance, but two halves of a whole.

Between them is James Reed, their creator, who made Roger and Dodger for a very specific (if still rather murky) purpose.

Reed is an alchemist, a rogue member of the Alchemical Congress — a shady group of scientist-magicians bent on commanding and controlling the fundamental laws of reality. Really, most only seem half-bent. But Reed? He's fully bent. He is a monster (Frankenstein-style), created by one of the Congress's greatest members, Asphodel Baker, to carry on her legacy of experimentation and remake the world.

The twins, of course, are an integral part of his plan. If he succeeds, Reed will control time (I think) and reality (possibly) and, in any event, become some kind of super-powerful wizard-man, which he will then lord over all the pathetic mortals who ever doubted him, Mwahahaha et cetera. Yeah, okay. So Reed is a little flat. His assistant (a vicious, murderous, blood-spattered creature called Leigh who loves and hates Reed with equal ferocity) is the same. They're both mustache-twisting caricatures driven by non-specific hate and vengeance and not exactly, you know, rounded.

But that's okay. Chills and narrative torque can be wrung out of characters like this by writers with chops enough to balance different motivational weights (see early Darth Vader, Moriarty, Blofeld), and McGuire absolutely has those skills. Whenever the plot thread switches back to Reed or Leigh, you know something terrible is going to happen. You know there's going to be bodies on the floor. You know the tension will ratchet that much tighter on Roger and Dodger.

Because Roger and Dodger have no clue. They don't know they are pawns and they don't know about Reed. They're just a couple of kids (later, young adults) who happen to be really good at words and math.

Roger and Dodger are the heart of this story. They're its pulse and purpose — these two supernaturally gifted kids who come off like kids. And this is the greatest trick McGuire pulls here. Absent Reed and the alchemists, Middlegame rolls out (mostly) like any other non-genre story of a couple of prodigies struggling to come to terms with the gifts they've been cursed with. They're bullied, ignored, misunderstood. Forced to twist their talents into coping mechanisms for school and life. Dodger becomes a champion liar, assesses social interactions like mathematical equations, doesn't sleep, harms herself. Roger hides his talents, vacillates between painful shyness and forced happiness, swallows guilt like water. It's the kind of book where you want to reach into the page just to help them out, to warn them of what's coming. The kind of book where you find yourself (myself) yelling at it in the middle of a parking lot, as though Roger could hear me telling him to JUST TALK TO DODGER.

Yeah, I know. I need more hobbies or something.

Anyway, some other things to consider: Middlegame has a complicated structure that demands some fairly close reading. It begins at the end of things (with the excellent opening line, "There is so much blood."), backtracks, sidesteps, splits and reforms. The narrative architecture really lands just to the sane side of experimental, and it is a tribute to McGuire's skills that it never actually feels all that complicated. There's a kind of counting clock gimmick she uses for the chapter headings — dates and countdowns and such — which might help a little, but actually made things more confusing for me because I was constantly trying to rationalize a timeline that I couldn't see the end of until the book was finished. Further, about three-quarters of the way through, as Roger and Dodger (now in grad school) begin fully manifesting their powers, Middlegame also becomes a book about time and the alternate paths through it. It becomes a story about the power of competing narrative realities with a heavy nod to The Wizard of Oz and the fictional Over The Woodward Wall by Asphodel Baker — two books which (in McGuire's world) actually existed as competing primers on alchemy and the fundamental structures of the world. It blossoms is what I'm saying. Opens out and takes on layers and a compelling seriousness that McGuire spent 400 pages building toward. Chess games and college visits, foreign languages and secret pain — all of it laying a base for what, at the end, becomes a bloody 100-page chase scene built stick by stick to fulfill the promise of that simple, terrible opening line. These children, Roger and Dodger, were created by Reed to reshape the world for him — to embody the forces of the universe within themselves. Unfortunately, that's precisely what happens. And before the last page turns, they're going to find him, confront him, and find out exactly why. Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.  Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.