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

This multi-award winner is not for everyone.  I’ve seen opinions from people who love it, and opinions from people who couldn’t finish it.  I enjoyed parts of this work, while outright dismissing others.  I’ve had fun with this story, but I’d still belong to the camp who is dumbfounded at the awards this novella has garnered.

In the far future, or maybe past, or perhaps everytime, there is a war raging between the technology-heavy Agency and biology-focused Garden.  The best time traveling agents from both factions affect timelines, jump from one reality to the next and square off on battlefields.  Two such agents are Agency’s Red, and Garden’s Blue.  Even though they never met each other, they are aware of their counterpart’s presence and their activities, which foil their own plans.  This changes one day, when Red finds a message on a battlefield, sent by Blue, where the latter taunts Red and her faction.  A letter exchange quickly develops between the two.

Soon, taunts are replaced with expressions of love, and the two opposing agents fall for each other.  They need to hide their long-distance relationship, devising increasingly complicated methods of delivering their letters.  Still, someone is shadowing Red and reading letters from Blue, even after Red attempts to destroy them.  Eventually, the Agency realizes that there is existing communication between the two, and even though it does not understand its extent, Red’s commanding officer forces her to write a letter to Blue, which would kill her.

Red complies, but she manages to warn Blue of the letter ahead of time.  Blue does not heed the warning and is killed by Red’s letter.  Red breaks with the Agency and goes on a desperate chase, pursued by both the Garden and Agency agents, to reconstruct Blue.  At the end of the chase, Red finds herself in Agency’s prison, tortured, but with a glimmer of hope that she’d be able to escape and find Blue again.

The concept of traveling in time and between parallel universes is almost as old as modern science fiction, but new works still manage to put a fresh spin on it.  This novella is one such work.  I could easily picture the parallel universes, part dominated by the Agency, another part by the Garden, and worlds like ours somewhere in between, where agents of both factions wage war against each other, often out of sight of the general population, but sometimes directly participating in battles.  Sometimes tiny changes, like delaying a person by a few minutes or placing an item differently would snowball into profound changes.  This may be reminiscent of Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick, but where that story had only one side, here we have two with opposing interests.  This adds a lot of fun into the otherwise overly analytical process of affecting timelines (see Neal Stephenson’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. where he repeatedly hits his readers over their heads with too much technical detail).  In this regard, the story is flowing very well, and the hints of conflicts, battles or even simple lives that had been changed by the agents, stimulate the reader’s imagination.

Then, however, we get the love letters and the easy flow completely breaks down.  What starts as an easy banter between two accomplished agents who want to enliven their work with teasing each other, is very quickly turning into long diatribes about love for each other.  The focus is on “very quickly”.  I could not suspend my disbelief for even a second to believe the quick change from professionalism with a bit of bluster to a full-on romance.  That’s not all, though: the language of the letters is so radically different from the rest of the story that I soon just started skimming over the former.  I got the gist, especially those parts pertaining to the background of the two main characters, but I ignored the rest.

I have to say one positive thing about the letters, though: their delivery methods were some of the most inventive pieces of fiction I’ve read in recent years.  I was actually looking forward to the breaks in the main story because I knew that at the end the authors would come up with yet another wonderfully weird way to deliver another bloated love letter.  Add to it the mystery of the Seeker, who follows Red as she tries to destroy the letters and reconstructs what should have been lost, and you have a visual worthy a comic book adaptation.

The authors then cranked up the weirdness towards the end, as Red tries to reconstruct Blue.  Much of the worldbuilding and actions are just hinted at, with minimum detail, but that just adds to the mystique of the book’s setting and lets imagination flow.  The authors didn’t skimp on the ending, either.  It seemed to me that they paid very meticulous attention to their writing till the very last sentence and didn’t make any shortcuts that works with such a scope sometimes tend to do.

All in all, this novella was a fun ride.  The set pieces were very well done, the action flowed freely, and my imagination was definitely stimulated.  In this regard, and in its subject matter, this story was very similar to the much shorter A Dry, Quiet War by Tony Daniel.  Unfortunately, for me Time War could have been just as short.  I found no value in the love letters.  I understand that others feel differently, but those who are in for the speculative elements can just skim over the letters at a little loss to the integrity to the overall story.  Oh, and don’t let the name fool you: nobody loses the war.  It is still raging on.

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