Book review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

One of the great gifts of of being alive is when something small and unexpected becomes something altogether toweringly transformational, changing life for the better in a thousand different fundamental ways.

It makes even more of an impact when this great change emerges from something calamitous or dark, such as in war, when by rights and expectation, no good thing should ever see the light of day.

But for the two protagonists in This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, this is precisely what takes place when the two agents, known simply but poetically as Red and Blue begin writing to each other each as the future factions they belong to fight a bloodthirsty, unyielding war across time.

This is a bitter battle between a technologically advanced faction, to which Red belongs, which venerates the merge of people and machine, and a biological group consciousness which, though it adheres to a more natural approach, is every bit as mercenary as their enemy.

By every thought imaginable, Red and Blue, leading agents of their respective groups who spend their days, weeks, months and years crawling up and down time threads in a bid to shape future events to their faction’s far-future advantage, should have no contact at all.

“Did her adversary—did Blue—ever read her letter? Red liked writing it—winning tastes sweet, but sweeter still to triumph and tease. To dare reprisal. Every op since, she’s watched her back, moved with double cation, waiting for payback, or for Commandant to find her small breach of discipline and bring the scourge. Red has her excuses ready: Since her disobedience, she’s been a better agent, more meticulous.

But no reply has come.

Perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps her enemy does not care, after all.” (P. 16)

The very idea is anathema but when Blue leaves a taunting note on a scorched battlefield on a dying planet, the latest casualty in a neverending war to the temporal death, Red is fearful and eager in equal measure, intrigued that her mortal enemy would each out in such a fashion.

It is by every rule in their long-running conflict a violation, and both Red and Blue are acutely conscious that if their respective leaders, Commandant and Garden find out there has been any contact at all, let alone the close relationship that develops wholly unexpectedly from that cheeky first missive, it is all over for them.

And yet, neither can resist seeing where the first note which simply reads Burn before reading, will lead and what may arise from it.

What they don’t count on is how it comes to represent and give to each of them something they didn’t know was missing – the need for an powerful emotional connection that is missing by virtue of their vocation which leaves little room for anything truly human to creep on.

They’re at war and wars must be won! That’s always the way it works isn’t it? But what if, what if there’s another way, and one short brazen piece of communication could unlock it all? What then?

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (image via Uncanny Magazine)

It’s a tantalising prospect, one that El-Monhar and Gladstone explore with a kind of lyrical, transcendent beauty that stands in marked contrast to the brutal battle waged across the novella’s pages but which reflects how utterly transforming Red and Blue’s correspondence becomes for them both.

Every single page in This is How You Lose the Time War is a sumptuous delight to read, each word redolent with exquisite loveliness, hope and desire, and yet so rich with the kind of emotional resonance that truly beautiful writing sometimes lacks.

Here we have it all – writing so divinely gorgeous that you will sigh and gasp in equal measure while reading it, hardly believing passages this sublime can exist with two characters who, for all their gritty pasts and presents and futures – in a temporal war, all three chronological concepts are highly relative – are gradually growing into the lovely language that grows around them, very much like the natural bounty conjured by Garden.

The opening sections of the book feel raw and violent, visceral and dark and yet as Red and Blue grow closer and something astonishingly, alluringly romantic grows between the two agent, the book takes on all the hallmarks, narratively and language-wise of a great, transformative love story.

It is beautiful to real, it is beautiful to experience and it is exciting and heartwarming to see something so good, so pure and so lovely emerge from multiple time streams and world that have long lost that quality, all in the service of a remorseless, ceaselessly destructive war that has since had any real meaning for anyone, save for the inscrutable personas of the Commandant and Garden.

“The deep work swells within her as she coheres with Garden, as she feels Garden jubilate like a river in spring, as Garden floods her with love and approval enough to sate a century of orphans.

It’s almost enough. It’s unlike anything Garden has ever given her since that first severing. But within the swirling glow of cool, soothing colours she keeps a tiny vein of herself apart: sees a hand on a hand on a throat and thinks, I can’t wait for Red to see.” (P. 127)

This is How You Lose the Time War is not simply beautiful to read, however.

It is also packed full of challenging and exciting ideas, the kind that are thrilling and beguiling because they dare to question the status quo, ripping apart, like unravelling threads of time, the very foundations upon which these two disparate societies and their eternal conflict are based.

The book dares to ask – what would happen if instead of continuing along the same old path, repeating the same old mistakes and reinforcing the same terrible attitudes and their resulting actions, someone, or in this case, two someones, dared to challenge it?

What if what triggered this great questioning of the established order was the very love and humanity that seemed long since extinguished, both by the war, but also by the two societies that have grown into entities that are inimical to any semblance of what makes being so alive so special and wonderful?

Love in this context, for that is most certainly what Red and Blue experience in ways that dazzle, surprise and delight long since inured to such possibility, is muscular, bold, decisive and game-changing, the type of force that leads people to do the hitherto unthinkable and risk all in the pursuit of something that once dangerously taboo and utterly unreachable.

This is How You Lose the Time War is thrillingly beautiful ride – a tale of two people who find their worlds blown apart in the best way, who discover there is more to life than the destructive banalities of a war-filled status quo, and who take bold, life-changing risks as a result, their every communication, told in ways that will astound and delight and which is poetically delightful right to the very last, exquisitely-wrought word.

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