Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

August 28th

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This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epistolary romance novella set in a war fought across time. It chronicles the illicit correspondence of Red and Blue, two post-human agents on opposite sides of the conflict. Each is bent on shaping the past to secure the best possible version of the future for her faction, and each is very, very good at what she does. The first letters are simple taunts, but as the story progresses, the characters’ attempts to thwart, unnerve, and outmaneuver each other transform into something deeper and more dangerous.

The first thing about this novella that took my breath away was the sheer scope it encompassed. The story lingers among the smoldering remains of an intergalactic battle, then jumps back in time to the icy frontiers of the Mongol Empire, then moves forward again to an alternate-timeline London. As Red and Blue travel through wildly differing eras of history, it’s more and more apparent how large-scale this time war really is.

The prose is, for lack of a better word, electrifying. It’s sharp and esoteric and verges on poetry, and a couple of times, I had to close the book and stare at a wall for a minute to process what I’d read. I have seen some people criticize it as excessively flowery and purposely abstruse, and to some extent, I definitely agree. More often than not, though, I was won over by lines that were as brutal as they were unexpectedly moving, and the rare but clear-eyed flashes of brilliance scattered throughout the prose.

I didn’t understand everything I read (though I don’t think I was expected to) and the narration, like the characters, doesn’t wait for you to catch up. What I did get was brief, arresting glimpses of setting, context, and stratagem, all the more tantalizing for their brevity. It always felt like there was something more to discover, like the novella in my hands was only a snapshot of the scale and complexity of the time war in its whole.

Finally: the romance. I’m usually not a romantic, but I loved watching Red and Blue fall for each other through their letters. Their romance wasn’t cheesy or overdone, and both characters, as battle-hardened as they were, never fell into the threadbare, two-dimensional caricature of the Strong Female Character - you know the one I’m talking about. Because of that, their love felt incredibly human.

Whether you’re looking for a love story, a time-travelling sci-fi romp, or a work of poetry masquerading as prose, This Is How You Lose the Time War is definitely worth your consideration. El Mohtar and Gladstone have crafted a mind-blowing hybrid of romance, spi-fy, and literary fiction that doesn’t seem like it should be able to work, but against all odds—just like everything about Red and Blue—it does.