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 Fifth Season”

The Broken Earth: Book One: The Fifth Season

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 4, 2015

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2016

 

This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

For the last time. (Prologue).

 

N.K. Jemisin is one of science fiction’s biggest authors whose popularity continues to grow. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is a MUST READ for ALL readers regardless of its genre. Jemisin, like other sci-fi authors, incorporates social issues of both the past and the present with scientific theories and scientific facts that make her work more comprehensible for her readers.

The Fifth Season captures the readers’ attention instantly by using the second person narration for the first chapter (after the Prologue) and is used throughout the novel. This style of narration pulls you into the structure of the society of a futuristic and a damaged planet Earth. The story begins with a terrible earthquake and the mother of a murdered toddler, Essun; then, the story jumps to a young girl, Damaya, being cast out by her family for demonstrating a dangerous ability; and finally, the story moves to another protagonist, Syenite, who is given an unusual task by her superiors to complete.

N.K. Jemisin gives readers her vision of a dystopian world with several science references that will force you to reread your old science notes from high school! In other words: geology, genetics, and environmental science are part of the larger subplot of this trilogy! Just like with other works of science fiction: the world, the environment, the culture, the inhabitants, and the jargon need to be mentioned and explained. And, since this is the first book in a trilogy, it is worth learning the terminology and the information in the Appendices (i.e. orogeny, the Stillness, stone eaters, rogga, Guardian, etc.) because they are part of the story and are used throughout the trilogy. And yes, you do learn what a “Fifth Season” is early in the novel.

The characters and the style are juxtaposed. Since there are three different characters—a child, a young adult, and a parent, all female—the style reflects the experiences and the events occurring to each of them. This means that what is happening to a 10 year-old is different from what a grieving mother is feeling. There are five other characters we meet within the novel, but we do not get their POVs; yet, we eventually find out how and why these main characters are relevant to the protagonists.

Additionally, we learn that all of the characters in this story are damaged and/or ostracized from their communities. All of the characters are connected to the events regarding the end of the current civilization. The decisions and the backgrounds of the major characters give insight into the culture, the history, and the injustices underlined in them; it allows understanding to the actions of the characters throughout the story. The readers learn more about each of them as the story progresses. This is essential because after you learn about the protagonists and the other characters, the events that occurred in the “Prologue” makes more sense and becomes relatable.

The narrative is in the form of stream of consciousness—or the unbroken flow of a character’s perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings within a narration—which is necessary as one reads more of the story. The thoughts of the mother who is grieving for her son, a young woman who begins to question her society for what it is and what they do, and a girl who must adapt to her new lifestyle within a short time in order to survive allows for world building and interpretation of how the world operates. These thoughts and feelings buildup and explode over the course of the novel. The use of flashbacks by all of the characters flows into the present narrative.

The style—based on the narrative—reflects the current protagonist, as per chapter, clearly. Yet, Jemisin’s style allows her readers to gain a sense of mystery because of the uncertainty of the other characters, which are mirrored by the protagonists (through the eyes of the readers)! Everything comes together towards the novel’s ending. By then, readers have a better idea of the protagonist and the main characters and what motivates them all and why. The cliffhanger will make you want to read the next book, The Obelisk Gate immediately; and then, afterwards, The Stone Sky.  

The Fifth Season falls under the apocalyptic subgenre, which means that the characters are preparing for survival. A few other readers have criticized the novel for having scenes that contain the characters performing certain “acts” for survival. This criticism is interesting because other apocalyptic media—The Walking Dead graphic novel series and TV show, and The Last of Us video game—includes characters that commit brutal “acts” in order to survive their situation in that society. And, like The Fifth Season, The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are critically acclaimed. Ironically, we learn of similar situations during war and genocide through witness accounts. I believe reading words still leaves a lot to one’s imagination and gives us a glimpse at a potential reality.

Another critique of the novel is the “harsh reality and treatment” of those with the ability of orogeny (power to “move” the land) also known as “roggas.” Both history and fantasy and science fiction—which reflect humanity at its best and at its worst—expresses the way “different” people are treated. Both genres illustrate various forms of slavery and xenophobia taking place: children being separated from their families, corporal punishment, breeding programs, bounty hunters, etc. Fantasy and science fiction often includes aspects of realism in order to make the story more believable. Ironically, this method of storytelling becomes a critique to how people have and continue to treat other people. Jemisin does an excellent job incorporating this reality within her science fiction saga.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons: the complexity of the characters who are struggling with both external and internal conflicts, narrative and the plot of the story itself, the gripping and the gruesome society the author created, and the innovation of a different type of dystopia. Usually, when I’m thinking about theories on how the world could end, earthquakes and volcanoes do not come to mind. That goes to show that our way of life—not the Earth—could end and no one has an idea as to how and why.

The appeal surrounding The Fifth Season has been noteworthy and deserving. Jemisin’s novel has earned her her first Hugo Award for Best Novel; and, she has been dubbed as being “the next Octavia Butler.” As of right now, a television adaptation is in the stage of “early development.”

The Fifth Season does have a complex narrative, but the story and the characters grip the readers’ attention from the beginning. The uniqueness of the story yanks you in and refuses to slow down until the end. All sci-fi and fantasy fans should read this novel! If you want more of this story, then you can read the rest of the books in this amazing and innovative trilogy! It’s the only way you’ll find out why the Earth and its civilizations were destroyed!