This is How You Lose the Time War, Amel El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

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Like your victory, love spreads back through time

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.

* * * *
4 / 5

First off, I want to praise the title of this book to heaven and back. This is How You Lose the Time War. I love it. I stayed up at night thinking about how great it was (no joke). The cover is also beautiful. The book itself gave me mixed feelings.

She climbs upthread and down; she braids and unbraids history’s hair.

I expected a typical sci-fi novel focusing on time travel. What I got instead was a very artsy, purple prose filled quasi-poetic novel that mostly consists of letters. I loved the letters. To be honest, this book could probably just have been written in the form of the letters and how they were delivered. The beginning of the book put me off. It is very artsy and vague and not a bit confusing. But as I got into the swing of it I was enveloped.

So, what is it about? Red works for the Agency, an organisation that promotes technology. Blue works for Garden, which values the environment. The two sides are at war, up and down the timeline. They send out agents across the multiverse to braid the timelines to their liking; Red works on the surface of history, a murder here and there to change the shape of time, whilst Blue melds into history, taking up and living a whole life, wreaking changes from within.

I have been birds and branches. I have been bees and wolves. I have been ether flooding the void between stars, tangling their breath into networks of song. I have been fish and plankton and humus, and all of these have been me.

Red finds a letter on an intergalactic battlefield that isn’t supposed to be there. It is from Blue, her enemy. They begin to communicate in letters, but these letters take unusual forms to avoid detection from their superiors; they find notes to each other in the stomach of a seal, in the flying pattern of a bee, engraved into a tree, and running through poison. I loved this. Another thing that I definitely appreciated is that this isn’t a classic case of technology=bad, environment=good. Both sides are violent and manipulative and cruel.

The writing itself was very divisive. At some points I loved it – the letters, the sentiment, the passion and the fear. At other times I thought it was weird, off-putting, and deliberately trying to make things confusing for me as a reader. I definitely didn’t understand all of it and I feel like this was a decision on behalf of the writers for whatever reason.

All in all, I loved the title. I loved the letters. I liked and disliked the writing style. I’d have loved to understand more about the time-travel and the war. I think that I will be thinking about this one for a while.

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the authors for an ARC of This is How You Lose the Time War. 

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