This Is How You Lose The Time War

Book cover: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max GladstoneTwo forces compete for control of the future. Their agents do battle through time to nudge every possible world towards the outcomes they need. But now two of their best have made direct contact. Now the war is for their hearts and minds.

This Is How You Lose The Time War had to meet unreasonable expectations. It’s by two authors whose work I admire, even if I have read very little of it (although Pockets is one of my very favourite short stories). The pitch could have lost me at romance (you know how I am with romance), but qualify it with “epistolary” and “time travel” and I stopped arguing and started anticipating (besides: those authors. I trusted these authors).

Even the name made me tingle – was that a general address (a historical lecture? Instructions?) or a direct address (who? Me?)? As I opened the book, the dedication stepped right in to follow up in the same vein (yes, you) …in fact, the dedication got me between the eyes, nudging me into the right frame of mind for the relentless, crafty, oh so satisfying emotional rollercoaster about to be delivered.

I suspect it won’t be for everyone: those who come seeking harder science fiction, more technical time travel, will be left at a loss (at best). Those who come for the politics of a time war may be just as non-plussed. Even the world-building – of every world – is sketchy: a few poignant details, enough to hint at a bigger picture that your imagination must supply.

But I was charmed.

Red is the perfect operative for the Agency, a provocateur as dangerous as she is competent. Controversially for her paradigm, she likes to feel. She is curious to learn and try new things. She’s prepared to keep secrets from her Commandant. She can’t resist a note that says Burn before reading (could you?)

Blue is Red’s equal and opposite. Once suspected of carrying an infection that might poison the Garden, now she is a favoured child. Subtle, hungry, fond of risk, excellent at laying – and evading – traps.

Blue begins the correspondence, a teasing overture of admiration, full of Blue’s delight in having found a worthy adversary. Red responds in kind, and a pattern is established. But as they leave ingenious messages in unexpected forms through time, their regard for one another deepens and the tone of their letters changes. After eternities of shaping their paradigms through murder, what might they achieve with love?

This Is How You Lose The Time War is a glorious exercise in unbridled imagination, a song of love and resistance in the face of despair. It’s beautifully told, more poetry than prose, capturing searing moments in time as they are imprinted on our combative lovers.

Being episodic, I feel it’s a book I might reread more slowly: savouring a chapter here, a chapter there, my sense of time dislocated. But I’m glad I devoured it on my first read, appreciating the overall shape and flailing through the emotional beats.

If I have any criticisms, it’s that the final act was a little predictable, perhaps: but at the same time, it is exactly the sort of time travel bow I like best, satisfying precisely because it is inevitable. Perhaps we see a little too much of the machinery at work – perhaps a little too much is spelled out – if only because so much of the novel is delivered in carefully-chosen waves of the authorial hand that it feels odd to be taken by the hand and led through it at the last. And yet – the narrative has inertia by then, an emotional payload that twists it from being an exercise in showing how the trick was done and lends it a harrowing desperation for what it must yet achieve.

It hurts, even while part of you is certain that it is an unreliable narrative; that both you and your narrator are still being manipulated. This is assured storytelling from two master craftspeople working in perfect harmony. It entices. It charms. It cheats (of course it cheats, it’s time travel). It evokes. It inspires. It delivers.

In retrospect, I no longer know what I expected. I’ve been successfully braided into the shape it needs me to be to receive it. Of course this is the book I was longing for; this is the story I wanted to see told. Thank you, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. You were right. It was for me. To those who read this review: I hope it’s for you, too.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This Is How You Lose The Time War will be released on July 18th.