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


Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

And thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more.

Except discovery of their bond would be death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

“You asked me to tell truths. I have. What do I want? Understanding. Exchange. Victory. A game—hiding and discovery. You’re a swift opponent, Blue. You play long odds. You run the table. If we’re to be at war, we might as well entertain one another.”

This Is How You Lose the Time War is the kind of novel that dips in and out of minds, catches the sharp sun of memory and gleams, leaves its scent on its readers, like perfume transferred between lovers. As soon as you start to put more words in, however, you stagger and come to bewilderment—like reaching for something and misjudging the distance, feeling your fingers close over nothing but air. I had to read this novel in small doses, swallowing its blows a little at a time and I reckon I’ll need several rereads to figure out all that I can’t say in words right now.

Even now, I find it hard to describe the action of the novel, but—without spoiling anything—I can tell you that the first strand running through this loosely-braided narrative came in the form of a letter. The first of its kind was only pretend, an instant of self-indulgence, something like laying laughter over the dark, but it begun a circling of time for Red, the past cutting into the present like a whetted blade. The second letter was an abyss daring her to fall inside, and Red had a sense that she and Blue were all digging themselves deeper than ever before. By the third letter, Red felt that they were cutting their own throats by this: Two time traveling spies from rival factions divided between attack and diplomacy who, finding their way—making their way—through world after time-war-ravaged world, made contact and found love—and something that frightened them, too—across a void too profound to bridge with anything other than words.

The two women were more real to each other than reflections in a mirror and their scarred and hacked edges had borne witness to too many battles waged against time (and each other). They were like fish eyeing the hook, with too many forces ready to make siege weapons of their letters. In the sheer, shimmering improbability of the moment, however, they could almost pretend this love affair wasn’t a fool’s errand.

And we’ll run again, the two of us, upthread and down, firefighter and fire starter, two predators only sated by each other’s words.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is not a light read by any stretch. It’s a book of sustained beauty and lyricism that also works as a fractured mosaic of a novel—told in swift, brutal strokes, all wound into vertiginous loops of prose.

It is difficult, at first, to get a firm grip on the slippery setting of This Is How You Lose the Time War. I felt like someone hurled unwary into a tale they didn’t understand, with people all around waiting for them to take up a part they didn’t know. There was a dream-like quality to the experience, as if those moments were divorced from the waking world by the strangeness of it all. But even with confusion painted on my face, the story made sense to me in a wordless way that could only be described as magic. Every word was worth savoring, and my own breath seemed to pipe in harmony.

Which is why I think the novel would be irreducible by any easy categorization: This Is How You Lose the Time War is a time travel adventure, a sci-fi romp, poetry masquerading as prose, and a love story. It’s an intricate dance, and one that the authors render with agility, grace and ease. That they could pull it off at all—let alone so winningly—is something of a marvel itself, and I was left genuinely impressed.

While This Is How You Lose the Time War is not written in verse, poetry lives in its pages. The authors are in thrilling command of their narrative gifts, and their language soars as they write of desire, longing, survival, and freedom.

That said, those gifts can double as obstacles. As dizzying and immersive as the setting and premise are, This Is How You Lose the Time War is novel that is both exhilarating and exhausting—sometimes simultaneously. Even as I snatched hungrily at the next page, there were moments when the lyricism felt labored—the sentences so bedecked with metaphors and analogies that reading becomes akin to treading water in sodden clothes, barely keeping your nose and mouth above the surface—and I found myself sometimes craving a little restraint. Inside the long economy of a novel, too much prose—no matter how exquisite—can occasionally hamper the otherwise compelling flow, and, I think readers who can’t muster tame patience for tackling a few extra pages of mellifluous language might not find as much resonance.

I’m confident, however, that those able to relax into the chaos will be as richly rewarded as I was when the strands eventually beautifully entwine together.

Dearest, deepest Blue—
At the end as at the start, and through all the in-betweens, I love you.

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

  1. Time travelling f|f spies featuring love letters and lyrical writing??? I’m in. I’m not a super big fan of purple writing (unless it’s not constant, e.g. I absolutely loved Strange the Dreamer) but I hope it won’t affect me too much. Thanks for the review!


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