A lot of books can’t wait to reveal all of their secrets. Others dole them out slowly, reeling the reader in little by little. And while unintentional disorientation is the sign of bad writing, intentional disorientation can be fun. It requires a little more work and patience from your reader, but once you figure out the game, it can heighten the pleasure inherent in reading, the tension and relief of revelation.

MIDDLEGAME takes the ‘low and slow’ approach, revealing its secrets bit by bit. It’s effective because McGuire centers a complex story structure around compelling and simple character stakes to make an unusual story.

Asphodel Baker, a talented alchemist who was ignored and underestimated because she was a woman, had a big idea. She wanted to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, which McGuire describes as the “balance between language and mathematics” (kindle location 108). Basically Baker believed that these two forces shape the world, and could bring magic back into it if they were incarnated.

By the time our story starts, Asphodel is dead and her work is continued by James Reed, the heir she constructed for herself from dead bodies and alchemy. Reed creates several sets of twins, each twin embodying either Language or Mathematics. Wary of their potential developing too early, he separates each set.

Roger and Dodger (and yes, they know, the rhyming is an abomination) are part of Reed’s grand plan. Roger is Language. Dodger is Math. We first meet them in medias res, experiencing a moment of failure, although we are not sure what they have failed at. In medias res might not even be accurate. We meet Roger and Dodger at the very end of their lives.

And then everything restarts. MIDDLEGAME is structured around each “restart,” weaving a tale that builds slowly, as Roger and Dodger race to learn enough to find the correct timeline that will allow them to find the Impossible City (aka, their magic) before Reed can turn them to his own ends.

While the plot may be complicated, what makes MIDDLEGAME ultimately effective is that the character stakes are simple. Roger and Dodger need to find a timeline where they haven’t broken faith with each other, where they love and trust each other enough to push through the final stretch of the Improbable Road and on to the Impossible City.

MIDDLEGAME kept me guessing, but in a good way, as I traveled through the timelines. McGuire keeps her readers oriented so that you know about as much as the protagonists, and not a whole lot more, which makes you even more sympathetic to them.

My main critique would be that the ‘aha’ moment didn’t quite come together for me at the end. Specifically, the lack of clarity about Reed’s goals also made some of his decisions about the twins slightly confusing to me. Overall, I think in part a more solid grasp of what the Impossible City stood for would have helped make some moments at the end have more impact.

As I mentioned earlier, the characters and their relationship are really what drive the story. Stories about time travel, magic, violence, and multiverses can get caught up in those ideas. McGuire’s MIDDLEGAME shines because her book centers on the depth of Roger and Dodger’s relationship. And there’s plenty to focus on.

Their relationship is complicated, not just because they are the incarnations of universal forces, but because they are people, who make sad and wrong and scary choices all the time. We learn that in a lot of timelines, the ways in which they push each other further away have world-ending consequences. Watching Roger and Dodger navigate their relationship is beautiful, and delicate, and very real as they learn to stop running away from each other and start running towards each other.

Fans of McGuire will continue to enjoy her writing and specific aesthetic in MIDDLEGAME and it’s a great introduction for new readers to her engaging style.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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