This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
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Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. 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. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.
It has always been Red versus Blue.
They are the best agents in their field, the most powerful forces their respective sides have ever known. Each and every step they take through time is meant to shift the tides of war their way, and against one another, those steps are hard won.
But then come the letters. First to gloat, but then to connect, they start to show Red and Blue new sides of one another. Impossible sides, even, ones that shouldn’t exist, or they at least shouldn’t know. Most of all, though, it allows them to fall in love.
And once they do, how is it possible to win the time war once and for all, when they’ve stood on opposite sides the entire time?
This is How You Lose the Time War has something of an experimental feeling to it.
What else can you expect from high stakes time travel, the kind that branches out new realities with each interference? Every Strand that Red and Blue visit requires a new vision, a reckoning with the consequences of changes. I’ve not read anything by Amal el-Mohtar before, but I have read Max Gladstone’s work, so I was confident going in that these consequences would be fully explored, no stone left unturned.
Of course, this is a novella, told partly through letters. There isn’t room to unfold each new reality with total clarity. Instead, the authors excel at snapshots, brief little glimpses into each jump through time, sprinkled with familiarity even when they stray far afield from what we as readers know. It’s a triumph in so many ways, to weave this convoluted story with such aplomb and imagination.
And best of all, the reader does not have to understand every change. The focus is ultimately on this epistolary love affair between rival time agents, and each place and time they visit serves to heighten the emotion of their correspondence, to give it background even as it opens new doors in their relationship, in the war.
Twisty and brain-breaking those it may sometimes be, the story still moves onward with a graceful confidence that elevates the novella far above expectations.
“Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.”
The main appeal of This is How You Lose the Time War, though, is Red and Blue’s relationship. What begins as a taunt between rivals blossoms into a romance that quite literally spans time and space. These two women risk everything to communicate with one another, sending love letters from opposite sides of a long-raging war. Their words are found in feathers and fire, in bones and bugs and beautiful china tea sets, and each letter reveals more of their hearts than the last.
It’s truthfully not a format I expected to enjoy so much, and yet here I am. Through looping, soaring prose and the occasional hint of a meme or pop culture reference (what else, truly, could stand the test of time?), alongside confessions of hunger and loneliness and connection, I fell in love with Red and Blue’s openness. Every risk they take stems from curiosity and admiration, only to blossom into a love that can only exist between two equals aching for connection no one else can offer.
Truly, this is the sapphic enemies to lovers at its finest.
A short read, but nonetheless a satisfying one.
You may hesitate over This is How You Lose the Time War if purple prose puts you off, but I encourage you to try it all the same. It’s less than two hundred pages, and its final chapters bloom with a love and hope so ferocious it fills every hollow of your chest. And even that purple prose, sometimes so loathsome, serves a purpose. It colors every interaction between Red and Blue, creating a space just for the two of them in a way the world has never done before.
Read this book. Read it, savor it, and decide for yourself how the time war is won.
CW: violence, gore, animal death, implied torture, nudity, suicide attempt