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

This short novel begins on a dying planet. Red, a more-than-human soldier (“her weapons and armour fold into her like roses at dusk”) of an entity known as the Agency, has been sent “up time’s threads” to defeat two empires and so alter history. But she is not alone on the battlefield, senses that she is being dogged by an agent of Garden, the opposing force in the titular time war. In the smoke of a burning letter Red reads a teasing note from the agent, known as Blue.

Three things might be helpful to know about this fast-moving novel that doesn’t pause to help you get your bearings. First, up is the past, and down is the future. Second, Red is from a “techy-mechy dystopia”, and Blue from “viney-hivey elfworlds”, the two sides fighting in the past for dominance of the future. And third, the novel is narrated through letters, whose mediums are the most inventive you’ve ever encountered.

At first curious and competitive, Red and Blue’s correspondence soon turns to passion, and they start to wonder if there is more to their immortal lives than an endless war. It’s great fun to follow their adventures through time, as they turn up at pivotal moments in history: Atlantis, Caesar’s Rome, the Mongol hordes on the brink of European invasion; and stranger, more inventive times like a post-human digital future, or a pre-ice age industrial society. In each time is a letter between the two, hidden in whatever technology they have at hand, such as one encoded in water boiling in an MRI machine in a 21st century hospital:

the magnetic bones settled like reading glasses on the thermodynamic face of the universe, registering each bloom and burst of molecule before it transforms. Once it translates the last of the water’s heat into numbers [Blue] takes the printout in her right hand and fits the key of it into the lock of the letter-strewn sheet in her left.

For some reason I found the delicate counterpoint structure – Red scene, Blue letter, Blue scene, Red letter – particularly difficult to follow, a slight lag that often left me feeling wrong-footed. But it certainly adds to the dizzying vertigo of racing up and down time with the two protagonists. The novel’s ideas are unsettling enough to make you wonder what messages from the past and future we receive all the time. But then again we know all to well what the measurements of greenhouse gases or any other environmental data are telling us. To conceive of them as messages designed to alter the future is both empowering, in that it gives us agency, and despairing, in that we might choose to ignore them.

For all the sci-fi trappings, the novel’s heart lies firmly in 19th century Romanticism and humanism, with all the overwrought intensity that implies, particularly as the two grow closer and the intrigue reaches its climax. Blue and Red’s journey in time is also a journey into their human impulses: to hunger, to explore, to conquer, know, fight, desire and love.

Gay rating: 4/5 for queer characters and relationships.

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