I didn’t want to write this review. Strong start, right? I want to clarify that my reluctance to write critically about This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is not out of laziness or a lack of motivation. I loathe having to review writing I find profound in some way, through its message or its romance or a myriad of other sweet words to describe mostly indescribable experiences. I think mainly it’s a concern that I won’t do the piece justice. That my halting and insecure attempts to explain to others why it was that I was touched by a book won’t sufficiently get across the magic of the story. I’m so glad I didn’t have to review the Divine Cities series or The Night Circus for this specific reason. What else is there to say, really, when a text brings you to tears and rekindles a neglected but essential part of yourself? The fact that This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of these special stories was not super great for the part of me that is a reviewer. However, part of me that screams out for something bright and hot and dangerous to warm the essence of myself by, the part of me that fell in love with reading in the first place? That part of me needed this book.
To give you a brief rundown, there is a time war going on in the book This Is How You Lose the Time War. Yes, I was shocked as well. Our main characters, Red and Blue, are time traveling super agents from two separate futures. In one, a hyper-technological race of humans who have augmented themselves to be nearly wholly made up of machine have won and dictate the future. In the other, a hyper-advanced race of humans that has used biotech to augment themselves and their universe with what would be called “nature” if it weren’t used so unnaturally have won and dictate their future. The bulk of the story takes place as correspondence between these two agents at various points in the past and future as their paths overlap. What starts as a taunting letter to a respected foe eventually leads to a surprisingly touching and meaningful romance between the two. Sounds like a spoiler, right? Nope, literally laid out on the back of book blurb. That’s normally the kind of thing that would spoil my enjoyment of a story somewhat, but the fact that love is inevitable, that the future is inevitable is a huge part of why the story works as well as it does.
So my “boss” here at QTL, Andrew, who I have spoken of in reviews with both great love and great annoyance, has a large number of things that he loves in books (magic schools as an example), as well as things he tends to strongly dislike. One of these latter things is time travel. I understand and agree with him in most cases, as it’s generally done poorly, lazily, or merely competently which tends to gum up the workings of a book and mess with pacing enough to take the reader out of the flow of the story. I recently found a book I thought did it well in Middlegame, but after reading TIHYLTTW I have to compare stories involving time travel to a new standard. I love the way it’s handled in this book, and the ways in which we are exposed to the various eras that our characters play their futuristic-and-incredibly-dated-at-the-same-time- exactly game of phone tag in are beautifully described without lingering. I loved the idea of one of our agents, having lived as a north atlantic fisherman for the last ten years in an individual strand of time, seeing a pattern in the spots on a seal and interpreting that for the letter it was. I loved the future strand where an agent commits genocide by uploading a computer virus to the wrong place at the right time. I cannot think of an individual vignette in the story that wasn’t both useful and beautiful. This is a book with no fat on its bones and an exquisite skeleton.
I do want to take a moment to gush about the prose in this book. I thought, in the first chapter or two, that it was a little overwrought, a little too self-assured in its prettiness to the point that it almost came across as cocky. I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to describe it, but that was the first impression I got. Something akin to “don’t you just think you’re so clever?” But that’s the thing, it really is that clever. Each word is important, each description is purposeful, and the way unimaginable worlds are described varied from beautiful to horrifying and back within sentences. For those readers who go outside, and have been to the Badlands in South Dakota, this book has the same foreboding and otherworldly beauty that the terrain in that national park does. I’ve never gotten that particular feeling from a story before. I felt like an alien while I was within its pages, eyes wide open and toiling to comprehend the vistas being laid out before me. Oh, and for those of you who know me from my cosmic horror reviews, the description of the Garden made me want an entire horror series taking place there, not being there for longer within the story is the most acutely painful thing about this book to me.
You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed our characters yet. I’m not going to as I worry I’ll spoil something, some of their development or a line from one of their letters might be that one important jenga piece to the whole tower. I can’t begin to pick apart what’s the really important stuff and what’s the stuff that’s just gorgeous and luxuriant. While you “meet” another one or two sentient creatures in the story, we really only have the two main characters, Red and Blue, and as such we are given a surprising amount of space to stretch out and learn about them even within a novella. Their growth was superb and believable, their tit-for-tat taunting and one-upsmanship was fun, and parts of their stories broke my heart despite the fact that I guessed the twist. I love them and truly, truly hope we get more of them in a series or a short or really anything in the future (whichever one it ends up as).
Well I loved it. That part is obvious if you’ve gotten this far. I could not imagine this story being made better by being longer or shorter than it was. Each individual vignette was poignant and beautiful. Each letter Red and Blue exchange buoyed my heart and broke it once more. I was blown away by each world visited, each timeline changed, and each trivial fact about their respective childhoods. What’s more, everything I just mentioned that I loved meant something. It was all important to the conclusion of the story and it was wrapped up in a way that literally had me audibly “wow”-ing on an airplane, earning me several suspicious looks from the man in the seat next to me. I will be reading this multiple more times in the future, and this may end up being one of my few “yearly rereads”. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
Rating: This Is How You Lose the Time War – 10/10