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

  • On: 23rd Oct 2023
  • Category: Reviews

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, first published in 2019.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s a novella, written in an epistolary style, which a) was a term I wasn’t familiar with beforehand (epistolary means “of a literary work, in the form of letters”) and b) was a story style I’d never read before. It’s also a sci-fi story, and the result is a series of letters being exchanged between two rival protagonists fighting in a war across time and space … and I don’t know about you, but if that’s all you knew about This Is How You Lose the Time War, then already that sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it?

The story follows two protagonists: Red who works for the Agency, and Blue who works for the Garden – both fighting in a non-specific time war, their respective factions fighting for control over the far-future. No indication is given of how long this war has been going, but by it’s very nature, each side does and undoes the attacks of the other, and in doing so, have created multiple timelines and realities – beyond vague reasonings, the substance of the war is very thin, and at least to my mind, it may well have been going on for far longer than one might think, with the truth of its purpose and duration lost to the endless timeline writes and rewrites. One element of that narrative that I though was very well done was the metaphors used to describe the timelines and realities traversed – each version of reality is referred to as a ‘strands’, and the agents travel up-thread and down-thread, braiding and unbinding the strands as necessary to meet their objectives.

The protagonists themselves are also very interesting: they are, at least presumably, human, although in the loosest sense. They live in an also semi-ascended state, with the way that they traverse time and use steganography to encode their letters into tree rings and plant seeds, molten lava and bee stings, just to name a few – it’s not explained how they encode these messages into these mediums, nor how they discover one another’s letters so carefully obfuscated – but they’re either genetically modified or cybernetically enhanced (or both!) and through their modifications, they live a post-human, elevated existence.

The novella is co-authored by Amal El-Mohtar, a Canadian poet and speculative fiction author, and Max Gladstone, an American fantasy author. They each write one of the two protagonists, with Red being written by Gladstone, and Blue being written by El-Mohtar. Going into the story, and even whilst reading it, I assumed that they’d simply written it together, but I was surprised when I learned that whilst they’d collectively worked on the overall plot, the POVs were individually written, and the character’s reactions were developed with genuine surprise at receiving each letter. What was surprising about this was that the book felt like a single, cohesive narrative, and honestly, hats off to both authors for such seamless prose!

 Speaking of prose, the writing in this book is absolutely gorgeous! In many ways its more poetry than prose – the words weave and flow, commanding your attention, captivating you, their beauty. There were moments where it felt a little more forced than other times, and if the story were longer, it would probably start to lose its appeal, but the story is short enough that the style earns its place throughout. The letters between Red and Blue are a dance, a back and forth, a response and a reply – first between enemies, lauding one’s victory over the other, but then they evolve, each fascinated by the other, and the language throughout reflects this push and pull effortlessly, capturing the protagonist’s loneliness and curiosity, their fear and fascination.

My one real gripe with the story is that its puts style before substance, and I noticed it most when they were talking about technical aspects of the world or themselves – words are used because they sounds fancy and flirtatious, suiting the rhythm of a given sentence or paragraph, but functionality, there are concepts and terms being thrown about that don’t make sense, either individually or in relation to one another. Personally, I think it would’ve been the icing on the cake if the narrative had gone to the lengths of ensuring the accuracy, both contextually and otherwise, of the terms and technologies being used at times – instead the usages diminish the prose because to any reader who catches the inaccuracies or mistakes, it breaks the immersion and flow of the story, which is otherwise really good.

 Overall, This Is How You Lose the Time War, is well worth a read. It’s an interesting, well written, and unique tale, with grand background scenery, heartfelt exchanges, and poetic prose, even though style is put before substance. Check out this novella today!