This is How You Lose the Time War is a co-written novella by authors Amar El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It follows two soldiers on opposite sides of a war spanning all of space and time. Red works for the Agency, while Blue is a part of Garden. There isn’t much talk about these two entities, and we only get vague details about them. We have no clue why this war started, or for how long it’s been going on. The only information given is that Red and Blue are on opposite sides of this war, and to win, one will have to destroy the other.
One day, Blue leaves a letter on a battlefield, addressed to Red, with instructions to burn it after reading. This starts the weirdest and most elaborate pen-pal campaign that spans through centuries and different universes. First, the letters start in a mocking tone, with Red and Blue using the delivery of these letters to sabotage each other’s missions. Eventually, the two of them get closer and eventually fall in love.
The book has the synopsis of a fast-paced science fiction novella, and that was the expectation that I had going into this book. It wasn’t super fast-paced and started pretty repetitive and slow. While it does pick up a few pages, the letter-writing part is the most interesting. The book leans more into the poetic side during the prose bits especially. This doesn’t mean that the book is bad by any means, but there is a slower vibe and can be hard to read if you’re looking for a fast book.
However, I thought it was one of the best books I’ve read this year so far. The slow-burn romance and character development were stunning and moving. The prose was gorgeous, and in true poetic fashion, no word was wasted. The way that the timeline was constructed was artful and fascinating, even though I sometimes felt a little too dumb to keep up.
Red and Blue contrasted each other, yet they also had enough in common for their relationship to be believable. Their voices were distinct enough to tell who was writing which letter, and they both had their mannerisms and ways of relating to the world. This is an aspect of the book which may have been helped by the presence of two authors since the story was cohesive, but the letters still felt like they were written by two different people.
I felt that the romance was believable, even though they only “see” each other a few times. I thought it was really interesting that the two of them were able to fall in love through letters alone. Both of the characters take on multiple different identities and forms throughout the book, as they travel through different timelines and universes to complete the tasks assigned to them by the higher-ups in their organizations. I enjoyed this aspect of the novel as well, as I am always fascinated by books with elements of fluid identity, especially in queer narratives. Something about the idea of taking on multiple identities and having them all fit a degree resonated with me.
I don’t have a lot of experience with time travel stories outside of Back to the Future, which while a little strange, was a pretty straightforward movie. This book is not as easily summarized. There are multiple timelines called “threads”, and from what I gathered, they all fit together in a “braid”. Most of the jobs that Red and Blue are assigned to do involve minor events that will shift the timeline in favor of either the Agency or Garden. For example, Blue has to bring down a massive AI that has become the central pillar of a cult-like religion in a dystopic future, and Red has to make sure that Atlantis sinks. They both explore many different pasts and even more futures, as they walk through the effects of every major and minor event of humankind.
While they mostly deal with humanity, neither Red nor Blue are fully human. Red is implied to be some kind of engineered cyborg person, created to be as effective as possible, to the point where she can “turn off” any human senses, such as hunger or desire. Blue is a member of Garden, which seems to be a massive, collective plant-like being with its offshoots and sprouts. Still, the two of them manage to connect to what few traits make them human, like their love for each other.
Overall, I felt that this book was a beautiful testament to love across all of time and space. If you enjoy slow-burn poetic novels with sci-fi lesbians and a touch of gut-wrenching pain, this is the book for you.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favorite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.
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