Continuing our reviews of the 2020 Hugo Awards finalists in the Best Novel category, we move on to Middlegame by Seanan McGuire and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
Asphodel Deborah Baker was an author of beloved children’s stories, spinning tales about a pair of youngsters named Avery and Zib who travelled to the magical realm of the Up-and-Under. To most people, these were no more than fantasies to entertain kids. But to those in the know, Asphodel Baker was an alchemist whose seemingly frivolous stories reflected esoteric truths.
But now Asphodel Baker is dead, slain by her own protégé Dr. James Reed. Together, Reed and his assistant Leigh Barrow begin an alchemical plan of their own in an attempt to gain control over reality. Their scheme involves the creation of alchemically-gifted children, always in pairs – one specialising in language, the other in mathematics – who are then sent off for adoption. One such pair is Roger and Dodger, children adopted by different families at different ends of the United States in 1986. Despite their vast physical separation, the two are able to communicate through a form of telepathy, quantum entanglement being the preferred term. But they have no idea of their origins – at least, not until they find themselves embroiled in a very strange series of events.
In Middlegame author Seanan Mcguire explores similar territory to her Wayward Children novellas, once again using the genre of the children’s portal fantasy to examine childhood and coming-of-age from an adult perspective. The alchemy governing the world of the novel is fundamentally whimsical, a fact that McGuire acknowledges when she lists the likes of Mark Twain and L. Frank Baum as magic-workers who, like Asphodel Baker, tapped into the greater truths of the cosmos. Roger and Dodger’s abilities are tied to language and mathematics respectively, allowing the novel to playfully explore the ways in which each concept shapes our understanding of reality:
Numbers are simple, obedient things, as long as you understand the rules they live by. Words are trickier. They twist and bite and require too much attention. [Roger] has to think to change the world. His sister just does it.
Yet this seemingly frivolous worldbuilding is set against rather heavier subject matter. As the children grow up, passing from primary school through high school and into college, there is no attempt to sugarcoat the challenges they face along the way. Romantic relationships are decidedly unromanticised; drug use is depicted with neither sensationalisation nor moralising; and a sequence involving self-harm and a suicide attempt is appropriately harrowing. Sometimes fantasy bleeds into and influences mundane reality – the villainous Leigh masquerades as a school psychiatrist in an attempt to cut off the mental communication between Roger and Dodger – but the two aspects never undermine each other.
In exploring the lives of its alchemically-gifted twins, the novel finds a lot to say about the role of the misfit – the bright child, the nerd – who is condescended to by adults and mistrusted by fellow youth. This is particularly true of Dodger, who, as a girl, is encouraged to hide her gifts so as not to intimidate boys:
She’s tired of being too smart to slow down and appreciate things that aren’t performing on her level. She’s tired of adults treating her like a circus sideshow and other kids treating her like a freak. (They’re not the same, not quite: to the adults, she’s the strongman, the fire-eater, the girl who dances on the trapeze without a net. To the kids, she’s the bearded woman, the lobster-girl. The adults gape and whisper because of what she can do. The kids her own age do it because of what she is. They’re both wrong and she’s exhausted from the effort of trying to make them understand.)
The heartache is accompanied by a otherworldly horror: after all, the story’s alchemical realm was mapped not only by authors of children’s fantasy, but also by H. P. Lovecraft. The villains are never far from the action, with Reed keeping an eye on the twins just as the Wicked Witch of the West spied on Dorothy’s travels and occasionally dispatching a minion to interfere. Reed himself is a one-dimensional antagonist, his interest as a character being less in his motivations than in how he disrupts the lives of the protagonists.
Middlegame is intricately-structured. The narrative is built around a sequence – located dead-centre in the novel – set on Thanksgiving, which serves as a symbolic coming-out for the gifted characters and includes a carefully-deployed time travel plot device that has ramifications throughout the book. In some cases the results are disorienting, with the novel periodically switching to a glimpses of an apocalyptic future in which all is lost for the heroes; these scenes resemble twisted versions of the snippets from Asphodel Baker’s whimsical fantasies that are likewise scattered through the book. Despite this, however, the story is based ultimately on a linear journey as the children grow up and eventually confront Reed, the embodiment of all strife in their lives.
Middlegame is an exercise in reconciling the irreconcilable – a game of finding a middle, if you will. It melds childish escapism with adult anguish, formulaic fantasy and formalistic experimentation; it blurs joy, fear and sorrow; frothy dreams and hard truth. Just as Dodger and Roger use the logic of mathematics and the ambiguity of language to alter their world, Seanan McGuire uses a playful narrative alchemy to create a whole new world for the reader.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
In the summer of 1901 a seven-year-old girl named January Scaller finds a Door. This is the sort of door that is capitalised; the sort of door that leads “to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to elsewhere.” She has control over the Door, and it opens when she writes a story saying that it opens. But before she can properly explore the world on the other side, January is called back by her guardian, Mr. Locke – the wealthy employer of her globe-trotting archaeologist father. She has no choice to return to the mundane world.
The years pass, and January remains in the care of the harsh Mr. Locke. Her father is still absent, although he hires a woman named Jane Irimu to act as companion to the girl. As a teenager, around the same time that she learns of her father’s presumed death, January discovers an enigmatic book with the title The Ten Thousand Doors: Being a Comparative Study of Passages, Portals, and Entryways in World Mythology. Reading it is a voyage of discovery: January finds that she is not the only person to have experience with Doors, and also learns about her own family history. She soon finds, however, that the world of magic can be dangerous. Not all of the people who know of the Doors are as good-hearted as she herself is…
This is a novel that takes great delight in playing with the reader’s expectations. It builds its plot from staples of children’s fiction – portals to magical worlds, an orphan looking for her mysterious parents, a set of colourful villains – yet it treats its subject matter with a certain adult wryness. This is not itself particularly unusual: Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame also takes children’s fantasy beyond the coming-of-age mark. But The Ten Thousand Doors of January is more tightly-focused than the sprawling Middlegame, and its approach to genre convention just that little more impish.
The novel has a thick streak of metafiction running through it. Six of the first seven chapters end with an excerpt from the book read by January; this is written as an academic treatise on folklore and legend, complete with footnotes, but from the perspective of a researcher who lives in a world where the magical concepts of fairy tales have objective reality. As it unfolds, the treatise segues from analysis to biography, allowing the novel to tell another story adjacent to that of January Scaller before eventually tying the two together as family connections are revealed.
In stressing this aspect of the novel, it is easy to make The Ten Thousand Doors of January sound like an exercise in formalistic cleverness, with no soul beneath its formalistic experimentation. In fact, the story is a deeply loving pastiche of the portal fantasy with a full understanding of where the genre’s appeal lies: it has all of the magic, whimsy and adventure that is necessary. But even in its most conventional aspects, the story is playful.
Take the novel’s treatment of racism. January is mixed-race, described by the bigoted Mr. Locke as “an in-between sort of thing”. In narrating the story she talks about how the varied but typically unflattering reactions she gets from strangers: “Was I a pampered pet or a serving girl?” Her companion Jane, who is East African, faces similar prejudice. As the two get into trouble over the course of the story, they are always aware how their very skin colour can be used against them by the wider society. The wider themes of imperialism and exploitation also play a role in the plot, with the archaeological society being equated with a villainous secret society.
While this is the sort of subject matter that can be hard to integrate with the carefree aspects of conventional portal fantasy, The Ten Thousand Doors of January manages to weave its social commentary into the elements it borrows from genre tradition.
January is the orphan protagonist so beloved of children’s writers, the sort of character who naturally exists between one space and another; making her mixed-race and exploring the prejudice that she receives is a natural extension of this state. Meanwhile, the exploitative tendencies of the novel’s villains are likewise articulated through fantasy imagery: the evil stooge Mr. Havemeyer is both a Dickensian thug and a literal vampire, two character types who feed upon the innocent, and so is right at home in the brutally racist world inhabited by January.
Deconstructing a genre is not, in itself, a particularly tall order, but a story that simultaneously deconstructs and rebuilds takes considerably more effort and imagination. With The Ten Thousand Doors of January, we see what happens when it is done successfully: the result is a genuinely multi-layered work that can be enjoyed as a straightforward romp, and also explored for hidden depths.