Why You Need to Read: “Middlegame”

Middlegame

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Metaphysical

            Dodger was never going to be a linguist, any more than Roger was going to be a mathematician, but they could cope, which was more than some of their fellows ever learned. They balance each other, (Variation). 

            Seanan McGuire is an author whose books you’ve heard of, but you probably haven’t read, or maybe you have and didn’t know it. Known for her two urban fantasy series—October Daye and InCryptid—they are some of her most popular books. Under her pseudonym, Mira Grant, her paranormal horror stories—Newsflesh and Parasitology—brought more readers and fame to her. Once you start reading her books—the Wayward Children series is my favorite books by her—you become curious as to which books to read next by her. Middlegame is a standalone novel, which is Seanan McGuire’s most ambitious book to date, and is the story she claims she’s “been working on for years.” Well, the wait was worth it, and if there is any book to be read by this author, then look no further than Middlegame

            There are three protagonists in the novel. First, are the twins, Roger and Dodger, child prodigies who were “created” in a lab and separated to be raised separately so that their “abilities” can manifest apart from each other, and from those who created them for their purposes. Roger is adopted by a couple and is raised in Massachusetts. To him, words and languages come to him as easily as breathing, but don’t ask him for help with math. One day, when he is seven years-old, he is struggling with his math homework and he cannot come up with the answers as he can with his spelling. And then, he hears a voice in his head, which gives him the answers to the questions. The voice belongs to a girl named Dodger. She is the same age as Roger and she lives with her adopted parents in California. She’s a prodigy too, but math is her subject. The two children think nothing about their “ability” to speak to each other with their minds, and they help each other with their schoolwork. Unbeknownst to them, they’re twins who’ve been kept apart from the day they were born. They don’t know that they’re being watched by members of the Alchemical Congress, too. Dr. James Reed—our third protagonist—is the one who created the twins and monitor their “growth.” He is the former student, and “son,” of Asphodel Baker, and his goal is to finish the work of his mentor: seeking a way to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, to enter the Impossible City, and to harness the omniscient power that lies within it. So far, Reed has accomplished the first goal in the twins. As Roger and Dodger develop as characters and grow (up) as people, Reed’s goals and motivations develop and alter alongside them. While readers witness the harsh upbringing of the twins, they comprehend Reed’s goals and his reasons for achieving them. He is a monster and a mad scientist in one embodiment, but he earns some sympathy throughout the narrative; some. There are several other characters in the story, but Erin is the liaison between the twins and Reed. She is the most complex character in this story and one of the reasons is because she has a love-hate relationship with all three protagonists, which means her motivations are unknown to everyone, including the readers. 

            There are two plots in this story. The first one follows the growth and the development of Roger and Dodger from childhood to adulthood. Readers witness how the twins are raised as prodigies and the pressures that come with it; the pattern of their friendship, including all of the highs and the lows that match any other friendship; and, the development of their powers and what it means for them and those who have been observing them. The second plot follows James Reed and all of his actions over the years as all the “embodiments” of the Doctrine of Ethos develop, and what it means to him and all of his desires. Throughout the story, readers experience all of Reed’s failures and triumphs as he does everything in his power to keep his project going, while remaining one step ahead of the Alchemical Congress so that everything will come together the way he wants it to be. There are two subplots that go along with the plots at their own rate. The first is all of the events surrounding the Alchemical Congress from the council, to Reed and his “other” projects, to Erin’s actions and influences on the work and the legacy of Dr. Asphodel D. Baker and how all of her research is the catalyst of this story. Everything comes together as the story develops along with these plots. The second subplot focuses on Dr. Baker’s “research” and the lengths she went to in order to have her work “published.” 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of all of the main characters using 3rd person omniscient, which allows for everything to be witnessed by the readers from their streams-of-consciousness to their flashbacks. Given the narration and the P.O.V.s, all of the characters are reliable narrators (even though they’re not reliable individuals). While the narrative has a sequence that can be followed by the readers, it can get confusing at times, especially to those who are not familiar with elements of the metaphysical genre. There are jumps in the timeline, but they don’t happen randomly; otherwise, the narrative flows at a rate that matches the development of the characters and the plot. 

            The style of Seanan McGuire will be familiar to her fans and captivating to other readers. Her word choice and sentence structure reflect the jargon and the ongoings of the characters’ occupations. Math, science and literary technology are used at the given moments. In addition, the novel is an allusion to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (yes, The Wizard of Oz movies are based on books), and anyone who is familiar with those books will appreciate both the reference and the criticism of the series by the author. Other pop culture (i.e. movies) and literary (i.e. authors) references will be recognized by readers who will comprehend their usage. Another thing the author does is criticize the gender bias surrounding both child prodigies and female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workers. The sexism experienced by both Dodger and Dr. Asphodel D. Baker should not by overlooked. Instead, readers should be aware that such occurrences are still ongoing and have traumatic and long-term consequences. The mood in this novel is authority: who has it, who wants it, and who fights against it. The tone is the idea and the question of whether or not authority should be claimed at all. If an individual gains control of authority, then what would it mean for everyone else? Should authority be given to one person, even if they don’t deserve it? I want to point out that the theme of the creator being betrayed by their creation is well done here as well.

            The appeal for Middlegame has been extremely positive. Not only have fans of the speculative fiction genre have had praise for the book, but also several critics have given their own positive feedback. NPR and Amazon called the book, “one of the best of 2019” and has received praises from other literary critics. It’s already getting hype for the upcoming literary awards. Middlegame is a recipient of the 2019 Alex Awards, which makes Seanan McGuire the first author to win this award three times! And, Middlegame was one of My Favorite Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books in 2019. In addition, fans of this book can expect, Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker, a companion book to this novel, which may or may not provide further insight into the fictional work referenced throughout the real one, in Fall 2020. Middlegame is a great addition to the canon and should be read by fans of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. All of the pop culture and literary references will have readers of other genres picking up this book, too. 

            Middlegame is a brilliant work which combines all aspects of the speculative fiction genre into one story to be enjoyed by all readers. The plot, the characters, and the narrative are elements that fans of the genre will love, but the allusions to pop culture and other influences will pique the curiosity of readers of other genres as well. The book is a story about knowledge, ambition and failure, and the consequences of acceptance and perfection. These themes of the human heart are why Seanan McGuire continues to buildup her fandom with readers who love a good story about people and their desires.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Why You Need to Read: “Uncanny Collateral”

Valkyrie Collection: Book One: Uncanny Collateral

By: Brian McClellan

Published: April 2, 2019

Genre: Urban Fantasy

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains some minor spoilers. You have been warned.

            “My name is Alek Fitz,” I said. “I’m a reaper for Valkyrie Collateral, and I’ve come to collect your debt.”(Chapter 1).

            When an author diverts from their known genre, the fans notice. Several questions are asked: Why is this author working on this? Will this genre/sub-genre be as good as the author’s other books? Should I read it? J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin are the current popular examples of the genre switch up. Brian McClellan shifts from epic fantasy to urban fantasy in his new novella series, Valkyrie Collections. Both fans of McClellan and urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.

            Alek Fitz is a part troll, part human individual who is an indentured servant/reaper for Valkyrie Collections, a debt-collecting agency that keeps track of people (mostly humans?) who exchange their souls for corporeal desires. Think of it as a world in which people think and behave like Dr. Faustus. However, instead of the individual going to Hell once the contract is over and the conditions are met, that individual is doomed to live without their soul for the rest of their mortal life. Of course, nobody wants to live without their soul, so there are some people who try to avoid the exchange; and, that’s where reapers—a.k.a. bounty hunters—like Alek Fitz comes in. Alek is the best in the business, but it isn’t because he is a workaholic. His boss, Ada, owns him, literally. Alek was sold to her as an infant by traffickers. The barcode over his heart gives the “owner” control of him. All Ada has to do is touch the barcode, which inflicts pain and Alek is obedient to her every whim. This means that Alek is put on the most demanding and dangerous cases. 

            Alek is “partners” with Margarete Abaroa, or Maggie, a jinn who is trapped inside a ring because of a curse, which Alek cannot get off due to the same curse. Both Alek and Maggie work well together, and both share common ground that they are victims of unwanted circumstances. Maggie gives Alek the upper hand and Alek treats her with respect. Both Alek and Maggie are the protagonists in this story because Alek is stuck with Maggie and vice versa. However, Maggie is not without her secrets, so whatever Alek knows about her is because she told him. No one knows about Maggie and why Alek wears a ring while at work. I would say Ada is the antagonist because she is the reason for Alek’s lifestyle. Just like in other stories from the genres of urban fantasy and mystery, Alek has confidantes and sources who are the type of “people” who you expect them to be, friendly but self-serving. 

            The plot for Uncanny Collateralis Alek is forced to take a job for the Ferryman—a.k.a. Death—in order to recover numerous souls, which have been stolen and are being sold secondhand to those who have traded their own. This is a problem for two reasons. One, missing souls throws off the “process” that occurs after an individual’s death. Two, someone who is in possession of any soul but theirs causes them to rot from the inside out. Alek and Maggie are on the case with a limited time span, because the balance of death is in jeopardy. The subplots within the story focuses on the past surrounding both Alek and Maggie. Alek wants out of his bondage from Ada, and he wants to know who his parents are and why they sold him. And, Maggie’s past is revealed to Alek—and to readers—when someone comes looking for her with ominous intentions. The subplots reveal more of Alek and Maggie’s character to each other, but it furthers their resolve in working on a way to escape their bondage. The plot develops, rises, and resolves at an appropriate rate because the series needs to begin and to end with the continuing dilemmas of these characters.

            Just like in other urban fantasy stories, the setting plays a huge role because the characters interact and travel from place to place. Alek travels throughout parts of Ohio—real places—talking to imps, necromancers, and angels while searching for the missing souls for one of the agents of death. The narrative is told in real time, so everything happens in a stream-of-consciousness and we learn about the setting and the society in which Alek resides in. Obviously, Alek is the narrator, and it’s safe to say that he’s a reliable one because of his predicament and lifestyle. The real time and the action within the narrative makes this novella an easy read. 

            One of the ways the author writes his story is by using allusion and pop culture references. Ferryman is described as looking like Keith Richards with a voice like Bob Dylan. Alek works for Valkyrie Collections; Valkyries are beings who travel the world collecting souls of warriors to fight in Ragnarok. And, Maggie is a jinn who is cursed to live inside of a ring. McClellan uses these methods in order to set the mood of the story. At the same time, the tone of this story lets readers know that this urban world is harsher than ours. Lost souls, cursed objects, and necromancy are just some of the negatives that comes with living in a world with magic and paranormal forces. This is the author’s take on the paranormal and it is very engaging. 

            Fans of urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.Fans of McClellan’s other works will enjoy both the worldbuilding and the fight scenes. This novella is the first in a new series by a popular best-selling author who is branching out with his storytelling and giving readers something new and different to enjoy. It seems novellas are gaining more popularity when authors present their fans with the chance of reading more of what they have to offer. It is obvious that McClellan plans on continuing this series, and I hope he does because the story is very entertaining, and it would be a shame if the series ended before it could continue. And, while it’s too soon for any form of adaptation to be considered, I believe either a graphic novel or an animated series would be the best formats for consideration.

            I had the opportunity to be both a Beta and an ARC reader for Uncanny Collateral. And, while it’s cool seeing your name on the Acknowledgements Page, I really did enjoy this story. The Valkyrie Collection reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s American Godsbecause of the use of actual places for the setting gives the story a realistic appeal, and something unknown could happen without anyone else knowing about it is a bit eerie. Brian McClellan presents his urban fantasy world and it works. All of the familiar elements are there: magic abilities, humans with knowledge of the existing worlds, and half human protagonists struggling with their identity. Like I said before, both urban fantasy readers and McClellan’s fans will enjoy this novella. 

            Uncanny Collateralis a fun addition to the urban fantasy genre. The setting is realistic, and the characters are rounded with conflicts that match the world the author created. The pacing of the story is appropriate for a novella and the plot fits within the length as well. My only issue is that it’s too obvious there is going to be more to come in this series, but of course readers won’t know what will happen next until the next book is released. I hope we get more because I want to know what happens next, too.

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).