This Is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Cover image

Publisher: Saga
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-5344-3101-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 200

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Red is the most effective operative of the Agency. She darts through time's threads, finds threats to the future, eliminates them, and delights in the work. She rarely encounters the operatives of her enemy directly; they prefer painstaking work in the shadows. But there is one opponent who has a different style. Audacious. Risky.

In the midst of a dead battlefield, Red finds a letter.

Blue is Garden's operative, moving from mission to mission, exerting exactly the right pressure or force at a critical moment to shift the strands of the future. She decided to leave a letter taunting her adversary, but also expressing gratitude at the challenge, the requirement that she give the war her full attention, the relief from boredom. She wasn't sure whether to expect a reply, but she received one.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epistolary novel, told in short action sequences by Red or Blue followed by the inevitable discovered letter. At first, they taunt each other and delight in their victories while expressing admiration of their opponent. Blue has the smoother and more comfortable writing style. Red has to research the form of letters and writes like a conversation, sharp and informal. Both threaten and tease the other with the consequences if their superiors discover this exchange.

In word play, cultural references, sincerely-shared preferences, open curiosity, and audacious puns, the letters turn into something more than a taunting game.

The time war is a long-standing SF trope. This one reminds me the most of Fritz Leiber's The Big Time: a two-sided war between far-future civilizations, neither of which are clearly superior in either capabilities or morality. Unlike Leiber's Spiders and Snakes, though, El-Mohtar and Gladstone's Agency and Garden have some solid world-building behind them. Red's Agency is technological, cybernetic, and run by what feels like machine intelligence. Blue's Garden is the biological flip-side, a timeline of crafted life culminating in stars with eyes and a living universe, focus on growth and poison, absorbing and reshaping. To the reader, they alternate between incomprehensible and awful, although Red and Blue are comfortable with their sides at the start. Don't expect detailed or believable descriptions of the technology of either side; this is well into "indistinguishable from magic" territory throughout.

Despite its nature as a time travel story, the plot structure of this story is straightforward and somewhat predictable. You're unlikely to be surprised by the outcome; the enjoyment is in how the story gets there. The relationship didn't quite ring true to me, mostly because it develops so quickly, although some of that has to be forgiven for the format. (I have some experience with epistolary relationships; they're much more rambling and involve far, far more words than this one does.) But the letters themselves are playful, delightful, and occasionally moving, and the resolution, although expected, delivers on the emotional hooks the story was setting up.

I wasn't blown away by this, partly I think because it's too tight, focused, and stylized. Red and Blue are the only true characters in the story and the only people who feel real, which undermines the world-building and means the story can't sprawl into its surroundings or let the reader imagine other ways of living in this world. At 200 pages, it's more of a novella than a novel, and it's structured with the single-minded thrust of short fiction. The dynamic between the two characters is well-done, but there is a limit to how much characterization one can do with only a single other character to interact with. Since Red and Blue can define themselves only in relation to each other, they felt two-dimensional and I was unable to fully embrace either of them as a character.

That said, I read the whole story in an afternoon and did not regret it. I have a weakness for epistolary stories that this satisfied nicely. It hit, at least for me, the sweet spot of recognizing most of the cultural references while being surprised I recognized them, which was oddly satisfying. And the whole book is worth it for the growing tendency they both have for seeing and writing about each other's colors in everything.

I think this is more of an afternoon's entertainment than something you'll remember for a long time, but if you like time travel stories or characters writing letters to each other, recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-09-30

Last spun 2019-11-05 from thread modified 2019-10-01