Credit: Amal El-Mohtar
A review of ‘This Is How You Lose The Time War’ by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
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.
Without sounding like a second-rate hipster, I read This is How You Lose the Time War before Bigolas Dickolas made it cool. But, was Bigolas absolutely 100% correct in that you should read this book? Yes.
You may initially shy away from This Is How You Lose The Time War due its length; some may not think it could be more than a short story, while others may demand a full length novel. However, this book hits the sweet spot in its page count, landing at a great pace and pulling itself quickly just when you think it might start to drag. The chapter style, with the letter at the end, was great, and knowing that an exchange between Red and Blue was coming at the end of nearly every chapter pushed me onward and had me turning the pages quickly.
Red and Blue felt very different as characters - a point which could have very easily brought the book down if the vague backstories of our leading ladies had been supplemented by indistinguishable character voices. But El-Mohtar and Gladstone excel -- the way the characters interact, through the letters, allows for both the lyrical prose to shine and for the two characters to boldly stand apart from the other.
The cast is small, restricted mainly to Red and Blue, which works entirely in its favour. Despite the complicated premise, the focus on these two (leaving the likes of Garden and Commandant on the periphery) allowed the book to stay clear and not complicate itself in worldbuilding. The basics are given to the reader, and while it may leave you wanting for a little bit more, or even a little bit confused (I certainly was: downthread, upthread? These terms take a while to remember correctly), I think the book lays it out pretty clearly for the most part. If time travel rules aren’t for you, I certainly wouldn’t recommend you pass on this one -- its subtle romance is worth the vague worldbuilding.
There is some great payoff for what may seem like irrelevant chapters, but the book really does end on solid footing. Some great LGBTQ+ rep, and most definitely a worthy contender if you’re looking for a shorter read.
A very comfortable four stars.
By Rebecca Boyes