Like so many time-travel stories, This Is How You Lose the Time War is frustratingly, endearingly, eerily beautiful. It takes a special kind of talent to write time travel well—you need not only that non-linear perspective that many writers find necessary even for linear plots, but you also require a certain level of sheer, Lewis Carroll-like madness to conceive of a multiverse so vastly alternative to our tiny slice, or strand. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, fortunately, both possess this talent. This book is an achingly beautiful and poetical epistolary romance, yet it is frustrating and ultimately, I have to confess, uneven.
Red and Blue are agents on opposite sides of a war across time. “Up” and “down” the race along the threads of time, braiding these together into stronger and stronger strands that match their side’s vision for the future. Along the way, they cross paths enough times to take notice of each other, to develop a mutual respect. After Blue opens the lines of communication by writing Red a letter, the two agents’ correspondence soon becomes a game in and of itself, one that threatens to supersede their allegiances across time and space. Each chapter follows either Red or Blue, with a letter addressed to them at the end to drive forward the actual relationship. In this way, El-Mohtar and Gladstone take the old star-crossed lovers trope and amplify it in exciting dimensions.
The language here is a exquisite revelry in diction, structure, and tone. One of my Goodreads friends calls this a prose poem, and that is such an apt description of what’s happening here. Epistolary novels have always shared a liminal space with poetry, given that some novels emerged from exchanges of letters of poetry, and for El-Mohtar and Gladstone to reach backwards in time (heh) and reconnect with this lineage is a powerful move. The letters that Red and Blue exchange are not simple, terse monologues. They are precious curations of thought and feeling filtered through the perspective of a time traveler, which is really where the differences emerge. Red and Blue are both posthumans, for some variation thereof, and their forms change with their particular missions. Their letters aren’t always plain words on paper—indeed, this is where we run into the limitations of the novella’s form as words on paper, forever unable to truly represent the impressive steganography of these posthuman pen-pals.
The romantic elements of this book are difficult for me to critique. It’s not just my usual hesitation as an aromantic person who feels like her grasp of romance is shaky on a good day; the romance here is quite alien because Red and Blue are, in some sense, alien. They are observers of a multiverse of humanities that did not or will not exist, tourists and dilettantes and contributors to historical events. I agree largely with my friend Julie’s evaluation that the depth of the romance develops too quickly, probably because of the short length of the book itself. There is, I suspect, an in-universe justification for that, in the usual circular paradoxical way that time travel offers. Moreover, one could also read the romance in this book as not quite romance. The relationship begins, after all, as one of wary mutual respect. In a way, Red and Blue’s love is more of an affinity for one another, a recognition of kindred spirits that is far stronger than their sense of belonging in their respective camps.
This time war burning brightly in the background? Intriguing, yes. The vocabulary that El-Mohtar and Gladstone use is fun and inventive. As usual, I find myself comparing this to Palimpsest, perhaps my favourite of all time travel stories, definitely my favourite time travel novella. Both stories create a distinct flavour to their time travel, and I appreciate that. The Time War in This Is How You Lose the Time War is slightly immaterial beyond being a plot device, of course. Yet I would also say that it obviously informs the depth and magic of this story. Star-crossed spies have been done in historical fiction, done in space opera, etc. Time travel definitely brings more dimensions (pun intended) to the equation. At the same time, most of the tropes feel very familiar: the superiors who wouldn’t ever understand this fraternization, the dehumanizing treatment by one’s own side, the curiosity about an enemy you never really confront directly because this is ultimately a cold Time War … it’s intriguing, yet it is also very familiar.
In the end, did I like it? Yes, absolutely. It was a great way to pass an afternoon on my deck. El-Mohtar and Gladstone weave a brilliant, passionate story. Yet as a plot, as a love story, as a story about exceeding the limitations of one’s programming, conditioning, education—however you want to put it—This Is How You Lose the Time War is lacking. This is a firework that burns brightly, but once it has fizzled out, you are still left in the dark and the cold.