Review of ‘This Is How You Lose The Time War’ by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose The Time War is a novel co-written by Canadian author and poet Amal El-Mohtar and American Fantasy author Max Gladstone and, despite the relatively short length, packs a hugely powerful emotional wallop. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from the description of two rival agents in a continuity spanning time war taking up a correspondence amid their battles and struggles, but I was definitely not expecting to find one of the most emotionally charged, hugely creative and deeply affecting works of my life. I was torn between rushing this review out before the end of the year to go out on a high note, or saving it to start the year off with a bang, but This Is How You Lose The Time War was an absolute triumph.

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?

As rare as it is for me for a book to grab me immediately, it is an even more rarefied experience for me to find a book that has true velocity. Each section that I read, each letter between Red and Blue, the more I needed to continue, the more I needed to keep reading. While finishing a book in a day is not an uncommon occurrence, there was just not any point where I even considered setting it down to continue the next day. Rather than risk even the tiniest spoiler by burying the lede in the conclusion, I’ll tell you now: Whether I count this book for 2019 or 2020 it is almost a guarantee to be my top book of both years, and moved directly into my top 5 novels of all time. Buy it, read it, whether you read the rest of this review or not.

Now that the gushing is out of the way, I can contend with the actual novel and not just how it made me feel. Epistolary novels are surprisingly few and far between in SFF and it was really interesting to see how the form can be used to great effect in genre fiction. The eponymous time war itself is primarily a backdrop to the interactions between Red and Blue, but there was definitely enough detail in the descriptions of threads and strands, and the scenes of actual interference in the timeline to give it a shape that was completely understandable. The novel itself is not, in any real way about the war, but care was still taken, often subtly, to work it into the narrative.

Instead, the focus is on the personal interactions between Red and Blue, as they learn about each other, and grapple with the reality of what their burgeoning feelings for each other might mean if they were discovered. And even in this intensely personal exchange, there are feelings of something larger going on. In one way, it causes one to question the entire course of their futures. They’re both described as among the or actually the top, most significant agent for their side, and so this correspondence represents something that could have hugely significant consequences for the conflict. But then in another way, the existence of this exchange of ideas and feelings causes one to wonder how often this has happened before, or could be happening now.

I’m not sure whether I think I prefer a version of events where this is the first time something like this has happened, or one where these kinds of things are actually happening all the time, and perhaps both sides have more in common with one another than they think. Whichever is the intent, I appreciate that it’s left at least at present, as an exercise for the reader to think about. I suppose a sequel or further books in this fiction could lay that to rest but, as much as I wish nothing but further success and publication for El-Mohtar and Gladstone, I think I prefer this setting and story as this perfect, contained gem that is exactly as much as it needed to be, with nothing excessive and nothing missing.

I do know that the novel has been optioned for television, which is very exciting. I do have concerns that a television format would want to be something like “One episode per letter” which worries me that the actual time war portions would have to be bulked up to fill time, and I like that the actual waging of the war is extremely in the background. That said, the scripts are set to be written by El-Mohtar and Gladstone themselves, so I definitely trust them to figure out the best way to tell the story. Also, Amal, Max, if you end up reading this: Gina Torres for Blue, Mohzan Marnò for Red.

So there we have my first review of the new year, and what seems like an almost insurmountable lead for best book of the year. If we get to Hugo season, and they’re anything other than a shoo-in, I can only assume that Red or Blue messed with the timeline.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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