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). 

Review of Season One of “His Dark Materials”

Season one of His Dark Materials, based on The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman has completed its run on the BBC and on HBO, and they didn’t alter the ending! Overall, season one was a great adaptation to the books and some of the “fillers” worked well for the narrative that was presented to the audience. Readers got to enjoy scenes that were denied to them from the 2007 movie and viewers were able to grasp the demeanor of all of the characters thanks to both the actors’ portrayals of the characters and the “fillers” which were added for additional context. 

            It should be mentioned that the TV mini-series was a better adaptation than the movie, but this is due to the fact that neither the studios, nor the test audience (these are based on rumors, which have circulated over and over again) interfered with the editing of the series. The order of the events presented matched the way they occurred in the books, the “true” ending of season one ended the way it does in the books, and the revelations of what was happening to the missing children weren’t glossed over. Yes, the movie did get a lot of things right, and those were repeated in the series, but the TV series is more in tandem with the books.

            The issues I have with the series so far should be mentioned as well. First, is the aging up of some of the younger characters. Lyra, Roger, and Billy were all close to the age of the characters they portrayed (between 10 and 12 years-old), but Will Parry was aged up to 15 years-old (he’s around 12-13 years-old when readers first meet him). I want to say this was because of the age of the actor who is portraying Will, but it’s difficult to determine whether or not this is the case. Yes, there have been some cases in which the age of the character(s) have been altered due to the actors that play them, but there have been even more examples of when it’s happened because the studio(s) believe it’ll make the narrative “more believable.” If it’s the former, then I have no complaint; but if it’s the latter, then they should stop making it so obvious. 

            Next, were the ways the proximity of daemons were presented to the viewers. While in the books, it is unclear what the actual distance a human can be “away” from their daemon, it is clear that the proximity has to be very close in order for human and daemon to maintain their bond and their lives. However, there are moments when the proximity is unclear and that is due to the way some of daemons are presented. Sometimes they are far enough for the individual not to experience pain, and then they are so far away that you wonder whether or not they could be similar to a witch’s daemon. I hope the network and the studio corrects this misconception for season two because it became very confusing between each episode. 

            Last, was the way Dust is presented throughout the season. The mystery of Dust was portrayed better than the knowledge of it. The explanation provided in the season finale is straight from the books, but the “danger” of someone outside of Jordan College and the Magisterium having knowledge of what Dust is—which, was presented better in the movie—wasn’t demonstrated in the series the way it should have been, in my opinion. Then again, Dust is supposed to be remain a mystery throughout the series until the end. 

            Besides the casting and the special effects, there were several things that I enjoyed about season one from the titles of the episodes—based on chapters in the books—to the way the parental figures were portrayed in the series. Presenting both Mrs. Coulter and Mrs. Parry as “damaged” individuals who try to balance their demeanor with their desire to be mothers to their children was presented extremely well. The issue of succession and power amongst the panserbjørne and the Magisterium—which, are both essential to the plot of the story—were presented (with the details given throughout the books) with the hypocrisy immensely. And, the motives of Lord Asriel and his reasons for doing everything he does comes back full circle. Lord Asriel is what keeps the narrative moving along and the series makes sure that the viewers do not forget it. Yet, it was Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Mrs. Coulter that grasped the viewers’ attention the most. 

            Overall, season one of His Dark Materials was the adaptation fans of the books waited for patiently, and the wait was worth it. All of the details that were omitted from the 2007 movie were included, the pacing matched the books and were appropriate for a TV mini-series, and the inclusion of source material from other books in the Philip Pullman’s universe—both The Book of Dust and The Subtle Knife—enriched the narrative more than expected and it worked well for the audience, both readers and viewers. Season two was announced by the BBC (with HBO promising to continue showing the series in the U.S.), which is great because this news is what book fans have been waiting for the most! The adaptation of The Subtle Knife will not only continue Lyra’s story, but also continue the narrative from the multiple cliffhangers this time around. Yes, the books should be read, but knowing that the mini-series will continue makes book fans as excited as the viewers more than anyone else can imagine! 

If you want the reviews of each episode, then you can click on each of the episode titles below:

S1, Ep.1: Lyra’s Jordan

S1, Ep. 2: The Idea of North

S1, Ep. 3: The Spies

S1, Ep. 4: Armour

S1, Ep. 5: The Lost Boy

S1, Ep. 6: The Daemon-Cages

S1, Ep. 7: The Fight to the Death

S1, Ep. 8: Betrayal

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10! 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Betrayal”

The season finale of Season One begins with both Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel—Lyra’s parents—preparing for what they’ve been planning for since the first episode. The former is planning to kill Lord Asriel under the orders of the Magisterium, and the latter is planning something that involves the aurora—a.k.a. the northern lights—and this involves his strange interest in Roger. 

            Lyra’s reunion and confrontation with her father does not go the way she wants it to go. Lord Asriel admits that he is Lyra’s father, but he’s not going to be the sort of father she wants him to be. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter admits that her abandoning Lyra was a mistake and she’s been trying to rectify it. Lyra goes from being an orphan to knowing she’s an abandoned child, and she doesn’t know how to deal with either the knowledge or the rejection of it. It is Roger who comforts her when she doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings. Roger tells Lyra that they can “pretend to be orphans” again, knowing life for them has changed and things won’t ever be the same. 

            Lord Asriel makes the decision to explain to Lyra the purpose of his research and his reason for him being absent. The discussion of Dust and its origins comes from the novel. The Magisterium believes that Dust is Original Sin and that it begins to affect humans once they start puberty. Lyra begins to understand why the Magisterium conducted the experiments on the missing children, and Lord Asriel explains his beliefs on Dust and his discovery about the aurora and Dust—it can build a bridge between worlds. He asks Lyra if she wants to go with him, but Lyra has already decided to return to Jordan College with Roger. 

            Meanwhile, Lord Carlo Boreal continues his search for the Parrys and the letters. Will is hiding in town knowing that the police are looking for him because of the man he killed. What Will doesn’t know is that the reason he’s being tracked is because Lord Carlo Boreal is using the police to find him. It’s interesting how far the power of the Magisterium stretches across the worlds. Will manages to stay hidden, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before he’s found, and he needs to hide somewhere where no one can find him. 

            Lyra wakes up when the Magisterium has arrived to arrest her father, but her father has already left taking Roger with him to the peak of the mountain. Lyra realizes that her father didn’t need the alethiometer, but Roger. Lord Asriel needed a child whose daemon hasn’t settled yet in order to use the energy from the bond to create a bridge. Similar to how Mrs. Coulter wouldn’t sacrifice Lyra to the intercision, Lord Asriel refused to sacrifice Lyra. This could be viewed as a twisted type of love parents have for their child.  

            Lyra rushes to save Roger. She dodges the Magisterium’s attacks thanks to Iorek Byrinison and the other panserbjørnes; however, not even Iorek can travel across the thin bands of ice. Lyra Silvertongue says goodbye to Iorek not knowing what will happen once she reaches the top. Pantalaimon tells Lyra that Roger is in a cage similar to the one at The Station and Lyra knows what her father plans to do. Unfortunately, she’s too late. Lord Asriel creates the bridge at the cost of the life of his daughter’s best friend. 

            Mrs. Coulter arrives too late as well, but she resists her orders to kill her former lover. Lord Asriel tells her of his plans to end the Magisterium and asks her to join him. It’s a brief, yet strange, reconciliation between Lyra’s parents (in which, Lyra witnesses firsthand in the book). However, Mrs. Coulter rejects Lord Asriel in order to stay with Lyra. Lyra regains consciousness in time to avoid her mother and she goes to say goodbye to Roger. Lyra decides that she needs to find Dust before her father and the Magisterium. At the same time, Will goes to the park, the same one where Lord Carlo Boreal travels from, where he finds a cat that disappears into thin air. Lyra and Will go through the bridges at the same time not knowing where they’ll end up. 

            Betrayal is an appropriate season finale because it wraps up all of the plots throughout the season going back to the events of the first episode. All of the questions asked from that first episode are answered. The deviation from the books works for this episode as well because it fits with the adaptation presented to us by the BBC and HBO. The only question left is “what happens next?” There will be a season two, which will be based on The Subtle Knife. Hopefully, the next season will continue to follow the darker tones left by season one.

My Rating: 9.0 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Fight to the Death”

This episode picks up where the last episode, and the books, left us. Lyra survives her fall from Lee Scoresby’s balloon, only to be captured by the panserbjørne—the name the Ice Bears call themselves in the books (and in the movie)—and brought before King Iofur Raknison. Lyra learns her father is alive, her friends survived the attack on the balloon, and Iorek Byrinison is on his way to rescue her. 

            However, Iorek is in exile and he was the previous king. Lyra uses her cunning, her ability to lie, and the alethiometer in order to trick Iofur Raknison into fighting Iorek Byrinison. This scene is interesting for two reasons. The first is we learn more about Lyra’s character and how she resembles both of her parents—as she is told constantly by other characters—especially, in her drive to succeed. The second is that Iofur Raknison is duped by Lyra—and Mrs. Coulter—because of his desire to behave like a human (this is explored more in the film, and in the books). 

            With the exception of Mrs. Coulter’s role and relationship with Iofur Raknison, everything follows the books from how Lyra tricks Iofur Raknison (which Iorek now calls her Lyra Silvertongue), to the fight between the two panserbjørnes, to the use of bloodmoss (read the books). Iofur Rakinson has been defeated and Iorek Byrinison has reclaimed the throne. Now, Lyra has to travel further North in order to rescue her father before the Magisterium kills him. She leaves with Roger and Iorek. 

            Meanwhile, the plot involving Will Parry catches up to the books—The Subtle Knife—in this episode. Will’s mother is visited again by the man from the Magisterium (his name is Lord Carlo Boreal). She is driven to the edge of a breakdown, and when she refuses to give the man any answers, he allows his daemon to scare her. She meets Will at his school, and he manages to calm his mother down. However, when they return home, they find it’s been broken into and searched. They flee to the home of one of Will’s teachers, but Will returns to the house to retrieve his father’s letters—which is what the Magisterium has been searching for. Will finds the letters as the thieves enter the house. He is able to defend himself, but he kills one of the men. Not knowing what to do, he packs some of his belongings and leaves town, with his father’s letters. 

            The Fight to the Death ends with Lyra arriving where her father is staying. Lord Asriel is NOT pleased to see her and tells her to leave. However, he changes his mind once he sees that she brought her friend, Roger, with her. Lyra is trying to process what just happened. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter barters again with the Magisterium to allow her to speak to Lord Asriel instead of killing him. And, both Lee Scoresby and King Iorek Byrinison prepare to face off against the Magisterium as they make their way North. What is Lord Asriel up to that has everyone scared? There’s one episode left in Season One and we’ll see how this adaptation decides to end.

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Daemon Cages”

This episode follows the order of Lyra’s “stops” in the North. In the books, Lyra ends up at “The Station” before she searches for her father. So, to those who haven’t read the books, but saw the movie, this is the sequence that the story follows. It’ll all make sense in the finale.

            Lyra—using the alias Lizzie Brooks—finds herself at “The Station” but doesn’t know its exact location. The other children—including Roger—tell her what’s been going on and warn her to be careful. While Lyra remains confident that the rescue party will arrive soon, she must stay vigilant because she can be chosen next for intercision. 

            This episode is essential for many reasons. First, we learn what the Magisterium has been doing to the children and how they do it. But, we don’t know why. Intercision is the process of separating one’s soul from the body (no, NOT like in Harry Potter, or in other fantasy books). Only, in this case, an individual’s soul is manifested as a daemon; so, not only is there a physical soul for the separation process to occur, but also it is a total separation. And, severing one’s connection with their soul leaves the person exactly as you would expect them, a vacant form of who they used to be. Lyra snoops around to the point where the Magisterium selects her to be next for severing. She is saved by Mrs. Coulter. 

Next, we find out how involved Mrs. Coulter was in with this experiment and how it affects her relationship with Lyra. It seems that her involvement with the Magisterium runs very deep, but it’s obvious she’s not devoted to them, or their cause. Unfortunately, her saving her daughter from a terrible fate doesn’t mean that their relationship is going to improve. It’s just the opposite, Lyra doesn’t want to have anything to do with someone who commits taboo. By the time Lyra runs away from her (again), the Gyptians, Iorek Byrinson, and Lee Scoresby, arrive to save the children. Yes, I’m know the fighting was done off screen due to budget constraints, but it was a rescue mission, not a battle. Lyra’s first goal in the North has been accomplished and she’s ready to go and save her father from the same people.

Last, The Daemon Cages see the end of one of the subplots; and, it’s the one with the Gyptians The Gyptians completed their task. They traveled North to rescue the missing children. The episode ends with them starting the journey back to London and back home. They’re also willing to take care of any child who will be rejected by their parents because of what happened to them. This is a reminder that what the Magisterium did was inhumane and taboo. 

This episode gets to the heart of the series’ name. It is a coming-of-age story and that means learning hard truths about the world. Many of the children experienced the authoritative control the Magisterium has in their world and it left them traumatized. This is the beginning of the end for the Magisterium, but what will the Magisterium do in order to maintain their power? And, why did the Magisterium perform such horrific experiments on children? 

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Spies”

The episode starts with a reminder that “The Gobblers” are kidnapping children—and keeping them in nets, cages and locked rooms—and have been discreet, until the Gyptians started to track their movements. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter abuses her connections with the Magisterium in order to find Lyra. And, it’s obvious that while Mrs. Coulter wants Lyra back, she’s doing it in a way which presents her in a way everyone can see why Lyra ran away from her in the first place. 

            Lyra Belaqua is rescued and taken into the care by the Gyptians. They have connections to Lord Asriel and are planning to rescue the missing children—as soon as they discover where they are being kept. It is during her stay with them that Lyra learns more about her origins and the alethiometer. Her reaction to the truth about her parents is believable and appropriate. Mrs. Coulter’s reaction to Lyra running away from her is not. Even the Magisterium is horrified by what Mrs. Coulter does in order to find her. It seems that it’s not only the alethiometer that the Magisterium has aversions against. 

            The Gyptians are willing to do more to figure out what’s going on with the missing children than the authorities. They have a plan—and allies—waiting to be carried out. Two of the Gyptians decide that having concrete evidence is better than traveling on gossip, so they continue their investigation against orders. At this point, it’s clear that the Magisterium is involved, but as to the how and the why, viewers will have to wait and see. 

            In our world, Lord Carlo Boreal—the man who works with the Magisterium—continues his search into the identity and the mystery of Dr. Stanislaus Grumman and whether or not he managed to “crossover” from one world to another, a theory Lord Asriel insists is the truth. The results his informer uncovers is interesting and shocking. This scene is essential to the plot of the story because it delves more into the idea of “other worlds” and why it remains a mystery to everyone. Book readers will know exactly what I’m getting at, but that’s all I’ll say, for now.  

            The Spies is the episode in which the plots in London wrap up and the story and the characters travel to the North to rescue the children and to learn why they were taken in the first place. This is the shift in the story in which the audience—both readers and viewers—have been waiting for since the cast was announced. This episode reiterates the dangers Lyra has been shielded from her entire life, but with her recently acquired knowledge, she knows she cannot return to Jordan College without Roger. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Idea of North”

The episode wastes no time resuming where it left off. Lyra Belaqua arrives in London with Mrs. Coulter, and Roger arrives in London to where the other kidnapped children are being held, including Billy Costa. Both children have no idea why there are wanted, but they have no choice but to go along with their circumstances. But, it’s clear that Mrs. Coulter is NOT to be trusted. 

            Mrs. Coulter is a villain whose motivations remain unknown, for now. Yet, this adaptation presents her in a way that wasn’t seen before in the movie or in the books. It’s obvious Mrs. Coulter is struggling with both the actions and the position she’s found herself in, but she is hard to read by everyone, so she remains a mystery. As of right now, Mrs. Coulter is breaking because for all of her composure, she has moments of rage. Something Lyra experiences firsthand, and it scares her. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium is investigating Lord Asriel’s “discovery” and the true purpose of his research. The crypts at Jordan College seem to be a very popular place because everyone finds themselves there eventually. I would use the terms heresy and hypocrisy to describe the Magisterium. While it is obvious the scholars at Oxford wonder about Lord Asriel’s theory about Dust and other worlds, it appears that the Magisterium has some knowledge about it already, and they use it to their advantage. 

            Billy and Roger are minor characters whose roles are emerging into the plot. The Gyptians are searching for the children in London, but they always arrive just too late to rescue them. After they are moved, Mrs. Coulter arrives and a scene from the books is presented for the readers; then again, the viewers see more of Mrs. Coulter’s character in the scene as well. 

            Lyra is known for being an explorer, like her uncle(?), and she knows something is going on with Mrs. Coulter. However, everything is kept under lock-and-key, so Lyra finds another way to get the information she seeks. What she finds leaves more questions than answers, but she knows that she’s not safe, especially with the Magisterium hanging around Mrs. Coulter. 

            The Idea of North is an episode that focuses on world-building and character development. A lot of it comes from the books, but there are several additional scenes that embellish the adaptation further. The episode moves towards the darker side of the story, the same dark side that Lyra was shielded from at Jordan College. We get a look into what is happening in London, in Oxford, and in Oxford (not a typo). Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Billy and Roger, the Gyptians and the Magisterium are participating in something bigger than they believed originally. And, there is more to come. The plot develops too, but this is the chance to learn how the characters fit into the plot as it continues to develop.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.