Quantum entanglement—a physical phenomenon that occurs between pairs of particles, no matter the distance between them—is as close to magic as anything described by science. In Seanan McGuire’s new novel Middlegame, those pairs take the form of Roger and Dodger, a boy who loves words and a girl who loves math. They face the same problems as any hyper-intelligent kid in America, but they do so with a quantum pen pal; they’re able to see through one another’s eyes and hear one another’s words from Stanford to Boston.
Theirs is a world anchored in both reality and fantasy, and that dichotomy is at the heart of McGuire’s tale. Middlegame is powered by alchemy, a blending of magic and science, twisted by those seeking to unlock the mysteries of the universe and hold its absolute power. While the alchemists plot and scheme, Roger and Dodger are unaware of any nefarious designs on their lives, alternately taking solace in and being terrified by their unique connection.
Like the world of Fillory in Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, McGuire also grants Middlegame a fictional children’s fantasy world, the Up-and-Under. She provides excerpts from the imagined books between chapters, which prove whimsical and absurd enough to feel at home alongside C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll. To Roger and Dodger, the Up-and-Under books by A. Deborah Baker are just children’s tales, not the blueprint for the mythical Doctrine of Ethos that they were designed to embody. The most talented alchemist of her day, Baker hid her secrets in children’s literature, hoping the embodied Doctrine would rid the world of its ills by harnessing the power of knowledge. Her ideals were corrupted by her acolyte, who wants that power for himself and has been watching Roger and Dodger from the shadows.
The alchemy of Middlegame is gruesome and cruel, always taking life to remake it, but its protagonists are just trying live normal lives and manage their anxieties and quirks. When those worlds collide, it’s a thrilling combination with much more than Roger and Dodger can imagine at stake.
Middlegame is a coming-of-age tale with two original leads; it’s a clever and imaginative fantasy; it’s a page-turning thriller with memorably menacing villains. McGuire already has Hugo and Nebula Awards under her belt, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see one more.