This Is How You Lose the Time War

To be honest, I originally was interested in this book because the title made me think of Doctor Who. #nerdalert But even after I realized what it was actually about (completely unrelated to Doctor Who, for the record), I was very interested in it. And then it got chosen as the January book for my in-person book club, which prompted me to pick it up faster than I would have otherwise, and OMG I am so glad, because I LOVED it. In fact, I’m thinking this may end up on my “best of the year” list and it’s still very early in the year.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone


“…I want to scorch the thousand earths between us to see what blooms from the ash, so we can discover it hand in hand, content within context, intelligible only to each other. I want to meet you in every place I have loved.”

But first, a quick synopsis. Red and Blue are agents from opposing factions in the “time war.” Red, working for the Commandant and a sort of android type being, starts to exchange “letters” with Blue, who works under Garden and is a more plant-based (if you will) genetically modified being. And this exchange, which begins as boasts and taunts from one side to the other, morphs into something deeper, more meaningful, and creates a connection that holds the potential to change the course of their lives, and the war, forever.

Oh my goodness this book was just exquisite from start to finish. There’s absolutely a bit of a steep learning curve to start, as it dumps you right into the midst of this time war and jumps around from period to period and world thread to world thread, with a world-building style that is provided minimally, slowly unfolds over the length of the novel, and even then remains fairly ephemeral, without much boundary or clarity. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the reader looking for an easy story to follow, but it is completely worth the effort. Since the vagueness comes in part due to the constant jumps in the time-stream and world strands – there simply isn’t time to fully flesh out each location. And yet, the glimpses we get are fascinating both for their exotic-ness (like in the far future) and their recognizability (like alternate versions of our own known history). Each snippet is given as a bit of context for Red’s or Blue’s location/mission when they come upon the next letter from the other.

And here is one of my favorite parts – the delivery methods of the letters. From tea leaves to knots in boat ropes to animal entrails to seeds to a bee’s stinger and more, Red and Blue find ever more creative ways to deliver their secret and ever-more-compromising letters to each other. And as these two isolated souls begin to pour their time, effort and emotions into this communication, a connection grows between them that begins to overshadow their greater missions, their side’s goals in the time war. Culminating in some mutual time-traveling/genetically-modified/futuristic-nature-and-tech-based life-saving feats, this book ended with such an important message about the nature and reality of war: that those on opposing sides have more in common than they think, and working together could bring an end to the violence faster than either individual side winning ever could. It’s a profound message, and not immediately obvious, but the slow way that it seeps into your bones lines up perfectly with the style and unfolding of the novel itself. And I couldn’t have loved it more or felt it more deeply.

There are so many other small notes that I made while reading this, and really they’re a bit all over the place as far as my reactions and feelings, so I think what I’ll do is just say them all here, now, in a paragraph that probably won’t be very cohesive, but will, at least, express accurately how I felt about this little, extraordinarily unique, epistolary novel. The presentation style is such an original mix of philosophical and experimental, which I’m not sure one can say about sci-fi, cause that’s basically what it is at base anyways, but it was unlike anything else I’ve read, so I’m saying it anyways. The breadth of imagination and historical knowledge/reference in the different times and settings and methods of letter delivery are astounding and awesome (in the “it completely awed me” sense of the word). All the different names for red and blue that Red and Blue used for each other were fun to read and, in many cases, had me googling to see what they referred to/where they came from. I really enjoyed the messages throughout about how real, meaningful change and connection develop slowly, but are worth the wait. The writing is simply stunning – compelling and poetic and intelligent and just lovely. THE ENDING. Both plot-wise and the words in the last three lines, the way things came together and the way it all came back to the title of the novel…it was legitimately perfect. Such a distinct love story – with a focus on time investment and emotional connection that I felt deeply. With a book this short, there is every chance it could seem like it happened too quickly, but if you consider, as a reader, how much time passed for Red and Blue in between communications and the amount of care and effort they had to put into each letter they wrote, plus their individual histories of isolation and lack of companionship…it makes that level of commitment, and their (self-unrecognized) openness to it that much more understandable and believable.

I legit cannot understand how this book has gone so under the radar. I am so impressed by what the authors were able to create in such a short piece. Truly, this novel is something special. Everyone should go read it! (In fact, I just recommended it to my dad, who does not read much recreationally because when I was talking about it he said it sounded like something he’d really like, with its mix of scifi and philosophy. Anyways, I let him borrow my copy and I’m now on the edge of my seat waiting to see what he thinks of it!)

As I mentioned, the writing was so beautiful. And I marked SO many quotes and passages. Here’re some:

“But hunger is a many-splendoured thing; it needn’t be conceived only in limbic terms, in biology. Hunger, Red – to sate a hunger or to stoke it, to feel hunger as a furnace, to trace its edges like teeth – is this a thing you, singly, know? Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?”

“Adventure works in any strand – it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.”

“So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone. I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; your as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours.”

“Red rarely sleeps, but when she does, she lies still, eyes closed in the dark, and lets herself see lapis, taste iris petals and ice, hear a blue jay’s shriek. She collects blues and keeps them.”

“She lays grass over grass over grass and studies, not only the geometrics of green, but the calculus of scent and heat, the thermodynamics of understory, the velocity of birdsong.”

“Myth and legend give way to history, which gives way again to myth, like curtains parting and meeting again on either side of a performance.”

“…[it] relies too much too much on tricking time, evading it, skimming across it like stones, dipping in distasteful toes, thinking to divert its currents by rippling its surface. You must dwell […] within time to shift it in lasting ways; play a slow game, but win.”

“But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me. I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.”

“Some days Blue wonders why anyone ever bothered making numbers so small; other days she supposes even infinity needs to start somewhere.”

“Listen to me – I am your echo. I would rather break the world than lose you.”

“I love you and I love you and I love you, on battlefields, in shadows, in fading ink, on cold ice splashed with the blood of seals. In the rings of trees. In the wreckage of a planet crumbling to space. In bubbling water. In bee stings and dragonfly wings, in stars. In the depths of lonely woods where I wandered in my youth, staring up…”

“Red may be mad, but to die for madness is to die for something.”

20 thoughts on “This Is How You Lose the Time War

  1. Hmm! I can’t say that I’m a fan of this genre (I tend to leave these kind of books to Mr T who is) and at first glance I would have said this wasn’t my kind of read at all but having read your thoughts on it and then those of several other bloggers whilst I’m still not convinced it is a read I’d enjoy I’m finding myself more and more intrigued by it and longing to find out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I definitely understand the genre not being everyone’s cup of tea. And it’s definitely one that requires some work to follow on the front end. But it’s short, so that’s a plus, in case you end up not as into it as you’d like. But it is definitely unique, for sci-fi, so maybe it’ll work for you even if more others don’t. If you try it, you should come back and let me know what you thought!


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