I wanted to be seen.
She sees her and breaks like a wave.From This is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
It feels a bit disrespectful to attempt a review of This is How You Lose The Time War. Better people than me have done so, in far more beautiful words than I can ever manage (like this excellent piece by Jake Casella Brookins in The Ancillary Review). Yet, it is a book I want to rave about, to anyone who will listen (and some who have listened already, but I haven’t tired of my telling yet.) This is not so much a “review” then, as much as it is a love letter to the book itself.
Saying that this is a book about time traveling spies on opposite sides of a war, who fall in love with each other via letters that they write each other, is an accurate but inadequate way to describe the book. There are spy games, yes — one does look forward to seeing how Blue will outwit Red, or how Red will thwart Blue’s plans. The war, and the violence born from that do stain our protagonist’s hands. At no point though, do these take away from the essential ‘sweetness’ of the book. In fact, like a little salt serves to enhance a dessert, the external conflict frames the private turmoil of a love story that unfolds only through the written word, and in which the lovers never actually meet.
I have observed friendship as one observes high holy days: breathtakingly short, whirlwinds of intimate endeavour. frenzied carousing, the sharing of food, of wine, of honey. Compressed always, and gone as soon as they come.From This is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
In that sense then, this is a love story about love itself — all its yearning, all its joy, all its heartbreak, and all its triumph. It is sensuous, in startling ways. The love letters themselves, encoded as they are, in the dance of a bee and its sting, or in the taste of sumac, or the rings of a tree, engage the reader’s senses. Our protagonists hang around with Socrates and Genghis Khan, with as much ease as they navigate the subway in modern day London, rendering a setting that shifts constantly, even as the relationship between them evolves from cheeky rivalry, to a curious friendship, to the kind of love that is a true blessing to experience.
Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt.From This is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
The juxtaposition of the mechanical (Agency) versus the natural (Garden), of the violence of war versus the gentleness of love; of duty versus pleasure, all these create interesting textures for the reader to explore. The book glides lightly, but significantly over these, allowing the reader the space to reflect, question and absorb. Ideally, one should read this novella slowly, but I do understand if the reader can’t put it down. I couldn’t. However, it is also a book that lends itself wonderfully to multiple readings. I also suspect that it is the kind of book that will reveal something new with each reading.
Words can wound — but they’re bridges,too. (Like the bridges that are all that Genghis left behind.) Though maybe a bridge can also be a wound? To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.From This is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
The book does presume that the reader is familiar with the genre, because it doesn’t expend time on the world building. I can imagine some friends of mine, who don’t read SF, picking up the book on my recommendation, and getting confused by the why, and what, and how of it all, that I take for granted. This is not a criticism of the book, but a note to such friends, to whom I also say, that I will discuss the plot and world building with them threadbare to help them understand, and can they please just read the book and let the words wash over them?
This book took me apart and put me back together in ways I cannot fathom. It seems cliched to say that it looked into my soul, but in truth, that is exactly what it did. It made me ugly cry at midnight, toss restlessly as it entered my dreams, and wake up feeling seen, as a person who loves and wants to be loved. This, I think, is enough reason and more to read it.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have you read any other books by either of the co-authors? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!