282 – Middlegame
Join us through the improbable download link to the impossible podcast, because on this episode of our Hugo series, we’re talking about Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. It’s a novel of alchemy, family ties, and gruesome murder. Sounds like fun, right? You’ll have to listen and find out. Plus, as a bonus, we promise that you’ll end up embodying some kind of abstract concept, for fun and profit.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes, Matlock, and Chris Winkle [opening music].
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Oren with me today is:
Oren: And follow me on a journey through the improbable download link to the impossible podcast, because today we are continuing our Hugo, not really month, cause it’s six of them, our Hugo six weeks talking about Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire.
For those of you who are not familiar with her, Seanan McGuire is a very prolific author. She has written a number of series, both under her own name and under the name Mira Grant. These include October Day, InCryptid, and Newsflesh, just to name a few of her series. And she’s won several awards for her novella, Every Heart A Doorway. That won a Nebula, a Locus, and a Hugo.
If you’ve got like all of the main, visual media awards, it’s called an EGOT. I don’t know what you call this. A Nullha, is how I think you’d pronounce that. An N, L, H.
So, yeah. So, she has a Nullha. That’s who Seanan McGuire is. She’s also a filk artist, I found out. I managed to find a couple of her songs on YouTube, and I really liked them and I want to buy them. But I cannot, because the store where she sold them from doesn’t exist anymore and they’re not available for purchase anywhere that I could find.
So, I would like to buy them at some point, especially the song, Wicked Girl, which I’ve been listening to over and over again on YouTube. Because it’s great. But anyway, that’s who the author is.
Chris: We discover Oren’s secret filk passion.
Oren: Is it secret? Have I not told about my shameful filk obsession?
Chris: I don’t think you have.
Oren: Oh, well, okay. Now, Chris, do you want to try to explain the book? Cause I explained to the author.
Wes: That sounds like an improbable task.
Chris: Oh, okay. So Middlegame is about a brother and sister, Roger and Dodger, who were created by alchemists to embody this magical concept called the Doctrine.
And just to start, trying to clarify now, because this is an incredibly confusing thing, the idea of embodiment in this case meant if you had a concept like death, or order and chaos, and you personified that, into a person, a character called Death, which is something we commonly do with death.
Apparently this story has embodiment of concepts, but this concept is called the Doctrine, which is not a normal concept that people talk about, but it’s supposed to be a combined duality of math and literature, I guess, math and words.
Oren: Well, it’s supposed to be everything.
Chris: But somehow you can split it into math and language, and that’s the entire Doctrine.
Oren: Apparently math and language are everything. You split everything in half, and you get math and language. That’s just how it works. I don’t make the rules.
Wes: Wasn’t it that math and language ended up being the successful one? Are they opposites? That’s what kind of bothered me a bit. Are you saying that for two things to compliment and form the Doctrine, they need to be opposites, or do they need to be compliments? Because some of the other ones that came out when they have just their room full of babies at the beginning, it’s like some kind of vision, future, chaos kid.
Chris: We do meet another character who is Order, who had a pair who was Chaos, but it sounded like those were just a different embodiment of a different concept.
Oren: Those were also supposed to be attempts to embody the Doctrine by splitting it into order and chaos. And apparently those failed because Order and Chaos was the wrong way to split everything, I guess.
Chris: Well later it’s explained as, as normal everyday alchemists can embody lesser concepts, but nobody has yet embodied the Doctrine. I wouldn’t be surprised if that just changes throughout the book and we just change what it’s supposed to mean and what the explanation is because this book does that in any case, trying to get out of this rabbit hole of trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
So, Roger and Dodger are created by alchemists to embody concept called the Doctrine. And these alchemists want to control them, but also want to give them a plot-convenient amount of freedom. And there’s lots of brother-sister drama. And despite all of the talk about alchemy, it actually takes place in modern day, from a period I’m guessing roughly 1986 to 2016.
Somewhere around the end they actually say 2016. And Roger and Dodger are, I think almost 30 at that point. But, it’s not actually steampunk or retro. It’s modern day, but like an urban fantasy with a masquerade. It took me a while to figure out that there was a masquerade. And, that magic is alchemy, which isn’t really alchemy.
Oh man. I tried. Okay. I failed, but I tried. Can I have my participation trophy now?
Oren: You can embody your participation trophy. I feel bad for whoever had to do the cover art for this book, because I have no idea what the cover art for this book should be. I know it shouldn’t be what it is now, which is a hand of glory because in the book, the hand of glory is like a tool that they use a couple of times.
It’s not really important to the story. It’s just a convenient way of explaining how a character can murder someone without getting caught and stops them from being tracked. First we had to establish that they could be tracked. It’s like a solution to a problem that the author created. It’s just not very important, but I don’t know what I would put in its place.
The story talks a lot about the improbable road to the Impossible City, which is somehow related to the Doctrine. So maybe you could have the siblings on some kind of road, but then I think that would look too similar to the Wizard of Oz.
Chris: The entire book is spent talking about the Impossible City, but we don’t actually see it.
Oren: Or really have any concept of what it is. And if it is the Doctrine or if the Doctrine lets you get there, or if it is unrelated to the Doctrine. I’m actually not sure.
Wes: One thing that is for sure is at the first mention of Impossible City. I was like, Yes! Awesome! And then I thought, can’t you just put most adjectives in front of city and it sounds like something cool to visit? Like Underwater City or Super City. I would go there.
Oren: The City of Lights. I mean, that sounds cool. That’s just what Paris is called.
Wes: There’s something about that wordcity that you put whatever you want around it and okay, we got it. And clearly the author was like, how about impossible?
Chris: Yep. So impossible it’s never actually featured in the story.
Oren: Because that would be impossible.
Chris: Okay. So a narrative style, this is third person omniscient, mostly focusing on Roger and Dodger, but then it also follows the villains.
And then we also have, luckily short, excerpts from a fictional book in the setting that sounds like it should have been Wizard of Oz. Probably was before McGuire decided to make it a fictional book.
Oren: Similar to, but legally distinct from Wizard of Oz, which is weird. Because Wizard of Ozis public domain.
Wes: The fictional stories in the book are meant to be the writings of the alchemist who created the villain, James Reed. Asphodel Baker? Cool name. I wonder if in this world you’re saying that, hey, somebody did write the Wizard of Oz, but it was Asphodel Baker who wrote the Wizard of Oz. And it’s not called the Wizard of Oz. It’s called this. And it’s meant to corrupt people or spread her alchemy propaganda.
Chris: Did you get to the part where the Wizard of Oz is actually featured in the book, too?
Wes: No, I didn’t get that far.
Chris: We learn that Frank Baum was a competing alchemist. Because alchemy also involves words somehow.
Oren: So we have alchemy, but by alchemy what we actually mean, as far as I can tell, is the consensual reality concept from Mage the Ascension.
Chris: Oh, that would make so much more sense that didn’t occur to me.
Oren: That’s actually what’s going on. I don’t know why they call it alchemy.
Wes: Well, come on, Oren, you know why.
Oren: Do I?
Wes: Yeah, probably because it just sounds cool.
Oren: I guess.
Wes: I mean, ever since Full Metal Alchemist, everybody’s like, Yeah! Alchemy rules! It’s the most awesome of sciences and magics.
Chris: Alchemy does sound cool. But when you use it for something that is in no way shape or form alchemy, I think it takes away more than it adds at that point. [The author] should have found another highly themed way to refer to this magic system.
Oren: Well, it kind of doesn’t matter anyway, because that stuff’s all in the background. That’s part of what’s weird about the story is that there’s all this confusing stuff about alchemy, and consensual reality, and the Impossible City. But the actual story is almost entirely about Roger and Dodger, just living their lives, with the complication that they can sometimes communicate with each other telepathically.
Because they’re entangled, or what have you, and that causes some drama. That’s basically the actual story. And then suddenly at the very end, it’s alchemy time. So it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on in the background. Because it’s not really featured in the story at all.
Wes: And they communicate telepathically, but they have to speak out loud as if the other person were within proximity, right?
Chris: Yes. They have to, they have to speak out loud to talk to each other. They can’t transmit their thoughts somehow, which is strange. It suggests that maybe they could learn if they tried, but then they never tried despite the need to be covert about it. Oh, we should talk about what people like.
Oren: Should we? I suppose we should.
Chris: We’re making an effort. We’re making an effort to praise books where praise is due. So, what’s to like about this book? What do people like, why do people like it? Why did it get nominated?
Wes: I read some positive reviews on Goodreads. And, we’ve talked about this word on Mythcreants a lot: a lot of people praised [Middlegame] for its cinematicwriting.
Oren: Cinematic? I would never have considered that as a way to describe this book.
Wes: Well, I read it and then I matched it up and I thought that McGuire’s writing is active. It’s fairly concise. She moves it. But my bigger gripe is that she kind of does that on a sentence level, but not on a book level. It’s just solong.
Chris: Right? Her sentences might be concise, but she’s actually very long winded.
Chris: I didn’t actually notice until I started speeding up the audio book a little bit, because I needed to get to the end. I realized just how much time she spends narrating about things that overall just aren’t that important.
And I can understand how for some people that would be very immersive, right? She gives you that feeling of living in this time period and all that’s happened and lots of little life details. And I think that’s probably what people appreciate. Honestly, her narration stands out enough and it’s kind of there all the time, with how long-winded she is, that I think to really like this book, you have to like her style.
Oren: Well, I can say one thing that I know people like about this book from looking at Ye Olde Twitter. A lot of people identify with the character of Dodger as being autistic, which I can totally see. I think that’s great. I agree with them. That’s a cool depiction, but it does get very dark.
For anyone who’s listening to this and thinking about reading it: content warning for self harm. But a lot of people seem to have really found that a positive experience, so I can definitely see why they would like it for that reason.
I also think that the main relationship being between siblings is kind of a novelty in its own right. It just feels like it doesn’t happen that often.
Wes: Yeah. Not without it being really weird.
Oren: I mean, these two having a fraught relationship, because they have this telepathic link, but they live across the country from each other and they can’t admit to having it. That does create some interesting drama.
Chris: One thing I did appreciate as I was listening was it’s clear that McGuire makes an ongoing effort to break gender stereotypes, both in choosing her main characters, but also all of the side characters. You could see that consistently she was putting women in the tough, brave roles and men in the softer roles, and always making effort when she was choosing the gender of the characters to break those stereotypes. I found that very refreshing.
But obviously, this book also has some novelty, even though I’ll go on to critique the theming. We’ve already critiqued the theming, somewhat, but it still has novelty. There’s a lot of emotion poured into the central characters. I can see some people getting very attached to them and their relationship.
Oren: It has something that seems to serve Hugo nominees very well, which is that it is a story about stories. Hugo voters really like those in particular. Hugo voters like stories that claim to have something to say, and they especially like stories that are about stories.
Wes: Well, and if a story about a story features a main character whose power is language.
Oren: Oh yeah. That too, you know, a lot of Hugo voters are also writers and it makes us feel powerful.
Chris: I have to say overall, I was surprised at how much I feel like this is a similar book to The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Wes: It is very similar. Yeah. I agree.
Chris: Despite the fact that the theming of the two books is very different, they have so much in common, both the commentary and stories, the interludes with a story within a story.
Wes: The word power stuff.
Chris: Yes. Yes. The power where you can use words to create reality. They both feel like they need restructuring.
Wes: This one though. And I think this is what it did better — and I don’t know if it’s because we got villain chapters, occasional ones, and Doors didn’t — but this one just felt like there was more going on. I mean, there was more going on. Let’s be honest.
But the veil in this mattered more, and I got a better sense of possibility, even though we never see an Impossible City or something like it. Clearly there’s magic. Asphodel, who is basically Frankenstein, brings all these body parts back to life. And apparently, he’s the only one that can do that. And there’s a Doctrine.
Whereas in Ten Thousand Doors, we had a heat vampire and portals, and none of the other cool stuff that they talked about that was through the other portals.
Oren: The tension in this book is certainly a little higher than it is in Doors. Just becauseDoors,aside from a couple of very minor sections, basically has no tension. But in this book, there’s at least the threat that there are bad guys out there who want to do something. Whereas, inDoors, the bad guy’s main thing was “We want to close these portals,” and I guess that might be bad in some very abstract capacity.
Whereas here these murder people want ultimate power. Now that’s still not great because I have no idea what they’re going to do with this ultimate power. Why is them having ultimate power bad? What would they do with it? And the book never really got to that, or maybe it did towards the very end.
Chris: They’re very mean people, and so they shouldn’t have power. Which is all well and good, but it really is much more effective if you have a specific thing that they will do. That’s bad. Intention is going to mean a lot more if you actually have specific consequences and not some abstract idea of they might do something bad because they’re bad people.
But both books definitely struggled with the conflict intention aspect, because they wanted a main character with slower lifestyle scenes and had really struggled to bring conflict in there. And both just have lots of contrived conflict.
Oren: Yeah. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this story is not about two kids at an alchemy school, or if you really want the separation, they can be two kids at different alchemy schools. Just have them be learning alchemy, and then discover this weird connection they have, which we can establish a reason why they can’t tell anybody.
Maybe they find out after going to a class where they’re told that any kind of connection you have with another person means there’s a demon inside you or something like that. And then they don’t want to tell anybody, if that’s an important part of the story to keep. But that way they could be at an alchemy school, and learn about how the alchemy works.
That would provide us with some extra novelty and also an opportunity for some fun magic adventures while we build up the evil plan in the background.
Chris: Although that might require McGuire to actually understand and explain how alchemy works.
Oren: I mean, maybe. That would be helpful, but I don’t actually think it would be a requirement. I have read a number of stories about kids going to magic school, where the author clearly has no idea how the magic works. And that doesn’t help, but it’s still better than the alternative, which is nothing.
Chris: I have to say, just talking about the magic again and just the theming clash here. It was extremely hard for me. Usually, if this was just explained as just being magic or being consensual reality, it would have been so much easier to believe all the stuff that they do in the story. I think there’s a huge clash in that we’re trying to use the trappings of science and alchemy.
First of all, we have alchemy in a modern day setting, which is weird. And we have alchemy that’s not actually alchemy. But then we’re also trying to justify magic by saying it’s scientific when that magic involves math and language, things that are just not even slightly scientific feeling. And so I struggled with believability and this magic system.
Normally a book just says, “Hey, it’s magic,” and I’m fine. But with this book, and the idea of the Doctrine being like a finite thing that would go in a couple people and only be there and cease to exist everywhere else. It was a down point.
Oren: And part of the issue was that they established that alchemy is part science, part magic. I know what regular science looks like. So what is regular magic? Because right now alchemy just looks like magic to me. I don’t see how it’s in any way scientific. So what would actual magic look like in this setting? Show me actual magic and then show me how alchemy is a halfway point between science and magic. I don’t think the book can do that because I don’t think there’s any concept of what other magic would actually be.
Chris: That’s too bad. It is strongly themed, but the closer you try to look that theme and how things work, the more confused you’ll become.
Oren: And it doesn’t help that, again, this is all hidden. We only find out about little bits of this from the occasional villain interlude, which is just to remind us that there are in fact villains, because most of what they’re doing has nothing to do with the main characters.
And then suddenly at the end — I would say in the last, I don’t know, the last fourth or fifth of the book— suddenly now it’s alchemy go time. And we have to get a ton of info dumps because there was no time to explain any of this earlier. And it’s all very complicated. This is why you end up with a whole lot of magic babble being how almost all of the problems at the end of the book are solved.
Chris: Yeah. Basically magic babble replaces turning points. So we don’t actually get any satisfaction of seeing the characters solve problems, because they just, “Oh, we have a tough problem. Magic babble, magic babble. Problem is solved and that’s it.” It never feels like they earned their ending.
Oren: My favorite example that I talked about before is when they’re trying to find the magic location that has like the importance to fire and water elementally.
And I guess we’re in a four element system now. Sure. Then Dodger does some math magic babble and is like the Sutro Baths. What are the Sutro Baths? They hadn’t been established as existing in the book before, and the book does sort of explain them. I was still really confused and had to go on Wikipedia to find out what they actually were, because I either missed part of the explanation or it just wasn’t complete.
Normally, if a place is going to be really important like that, you would find an excuse to establish it in the novel ahead of time. That would be a thing you would do. But yeah. Nope. The Sutro Baths. They’re a thing now; they’re very important.
Chris: Yeah. The magic does feel like a deus ex machina at a number of different points where it’s so complicated and so arbitrary that when a character does magic, they will often do things that we haven’t seen before, and then McGuire explains how that could be something that they can do when they’re doing it. It’s never established ahead. Or it’s confusing enough that you can’t remember.
Suddenly Roger needs to have random knowledge from the past. Oh, did you know that history is a part of language? And then he knows that, but that’s not established previously. And then it’s also at the same time as we are pulling out a deus ex machina at the last minute. It’s also overpowered. So they conveniently ignore the powers they have. Roger has a Command a pPerson power, that he frequently forgets to use, especially on the villains. If we just gave the villains some way of protecting themselves against this power, it would have helped. But no, apparently he could have just commanded the villains to not attack them at any time.
Oren: He didn’t believe in it, you see, I think is the explanation. And one of my favorite parts, speaking about how weirdly themed the book is, is the transformation of Baker. Because at the beginning of the story, she seems really sinister and she created Lee and Lee’s carrying out her plan.
Chris: Let’s explain again who Baker is.
Oren: So Baker is a fictional author who wrote these fictional books called the Up and Under, which are quoted at the beginning of every chapter and really confused me at first, because I thought they were what the story was actually about. It took me a while to figure out, no, actually these are just like stories within the story.
These are the ones that are similar to, but legally distinct from, Wizard of Oz, with a little bit of Alice in Wonderland thrown in. They are heckin’ sinister and seems pretty obvious that whatever Baker was trying to do, it was evil. Then, towards the very end of the book, we change places. Now suddenly Baker was a good guy, and Reed, the bad guy who she created, has been running around trying to undo all of her work.
Chris: Early in the book we established that Asphodel is the only person Reed has ever cared about and he is trying to complete her vision. The narration was very clear about that. And then later we talk about how he was actually trying to destroy her work. I think McGuire just loves Baker. And towards the end of the book was just like, “I really don’t want Baker to be evil.” So that means Reed is actually going against Baker’s wishes.
Wes: Yeah, that frustrates me. There was that great interlude chapter where Reed goes to talk to the other head alchemists. And as he’s talking to the old super alchemist guy, who’s in robes while everybody else is in like normal clothes — I love that image of him just like walking out, like kiss my ring — and Reed basically tells him, “I did it. I did it. And you guys said I couldn’t.” And then Reed’s having memory flashbacks of Asphodel begging this guy to let her in.
You generate a lot of sympathy for her as, as a villain, which is interesting because she’s saying these old guys don’t accept lady alchemists apparently. And Reed’s remembering that while he’s just talking to this guy and plotting his takeover. It feels like he’s going to get justice for her and then it just doesn’t deliver on it apparently.
Oren: I am actually reasonably sure that that’s what happened, because McGuire is planning to publish the Up and Under books as actual books. And it would be kind of hard to do that if the premise was that the person who wrote these was evil.
Chris: I would go for that.
Wes: I mean, yeah, I would read it.
Chris: A big part of me is wondering, because it sounds like she wrote these excerpts first for Middlegame, and now she’s going to have to find a way to fit them in to the Up and Under books that she actually writes. If you read Up and Under, you’ll get to a certain point where we have something that was established in Middlegame and it will just feel very out of place.
Oren: It’ll be like those lines that are clearly written for the trailer, but they kept them in the movie or the TV show for some reason.
Chris: Yes, exactly.
Oren: Why did the character say that? In character, there wasn’t any reason for them to say that; it feels very out of place. “Oh, it’s because it’s a trailer line. That’s why.”
Chris: I’m really curious as to whether the Up and Under books that she writes are going to have that effect with these little excerpts that were written for Middlegame.
Oren: You know, just to be clear, it is also possible that at some point there was an explanation about why it seems like Reed was doing what Baker wanted, and then changed his mind and is working against Baker. That might have been in there somewhere and Chris and I both missed it.
Chris: I don’t think so.
Oren: I can’t swear it’s not, but if so, it was so tiny and insignificant that it’s essentially still a plot hole.
Chris: I think I would have noticed, honestly, I think I was paying attention to that aspect. I mean, I could be wrong.
Wes: Before we finish up, though, if you are considering jumping into this, we should let you know that this thing goes from zero to extreme, grimdark at the drop of a hat. I mean, the opening section, I think the first lines in the book are “There is so much blood…” and then there’s kind of this future forward scene before we flash way back.
But then the introduction of James Reed’s assistant, Lee, when she goes to kill a financier that they don’t need anymore and just does a bunch of unnecessarily violent things to this guy. It really comes kind of out of nowhere, I thought. The grimdarkness of this just felt a little odd and frankly shocking.
Oren: It extends weirdly into places I would not expect it to. There’s a scene later in the book where Erin, who was supposed to be their ally and is supposed to be a good guy, has this long drawn out murder sequence where she kills another friend of theirs, because that friend found some information she wasn’t supposed to.
And she tells the friend, “You know, I don’t want to do this. I have to, for reasons it’s not my choice. And I’m sorry, I don’t enjoy this.” But the way it’s written, I just don’t believe her. She draws it out and seems to be toying with this friend of theirs and the explanation given for that.
“Oh, well, she needs to know if the friend told anyone else about this.” And all right, but you can’t trust anything the friend says in these circumstances, beause she might just lie and Erin is such a bad ass that I’m pretty sure she could have found out some other way. That whole scene is just really unpleasant and afterwards I’m thinking maybe someone could just kill Erin.
Because she viciously murdered one of the book’s only people of color. It was very strange.
Chris: It randomly swings into grimdark territory. In most cases, it doesn’t feel like that was actually necessary in any way, but it feels like McGuire enjoys that and wants that there. Especially with that murder scene.
Oren: Yeah, definitely someone was enjoying that. I don’t know who, but it was somebody and I didn’t love it. All right, well with that note, I think that we will go ahead and round out this podcast. We have all embodied the Podcast Doctrine, and now we have unlimited power to do something.
And that something is end the podcast episode. But before we do that, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is a Marvel connoisseur and urban fantasy writer. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We will talk to you all next week with the next Hugo book, Gideon the Ninth.
If you enjoyed this podcast and want to slip us some gold press latinum, head on over to patrion.com/mythcreants. We appreciate it.