Book: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019)
Reviewer: Jeriann and Bethany
Age/Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy Time Travel Romance
Reading Accoutrements: Your favorite trail mix for time traveling adventures
Content Notes: Violence, War
Jeriann: I found out about This Is How You Lose the Time War on Twitter. The authors/publishers seem to have implemented a pretty widespread marketing campaign, because for a few months, I saw SO MANY tweets and blog posts about this book. It looked fun, light-hearted, and creative, so I impatiently waited for the release, which to my chagrin, was many months after the marketing barrage that got me excited.
Bethany: When Jeriann told me about this book she was interested in reviewing for the blog, I was intrigued. The title teased me with snark while the blurb promised star-crossed lovers in a war to save their own futures. I was hooked. We decided to review it together.
This Is How You Lose the Time War follows two agents who travel across time, dimensions, and worlds. We know our characters as Red and Blue, but are given very little upfront information about them. Pretty quickly, the reason for the title becomes apparent, as communication between agents of warring factions rarely comes without risks to their cause. The two initially taunt their well-respected rivals (they are both at the top of their fields) with cleverly delivered letters, but quickly develop deeper feelings.
Jeriann: The first several chapters closely follow a prescribed formula: One of the agents is out on a field mission. We get a description of their surroundings, and some brief information about the time and world they are tampering with, sometimes including their mission’s goals. Then, we see them come across the letter from the other agent, often revealed with some form of drama, such as flames, or a dying animal. After the scene ends, we get to read the letter. The next chapter follows the other agent, and the pattern repeats.
Bethany: The purpose of their missions aren’t necessarily pertinent to the overall plot of the story. It is sufficient to know that the agents are fighting on opposing sides of a war by killing or saving people throughout history. I will say, however, that I was frustrated by several teasers of the worlds the agents were trying to save…as in, it took a while to become clear why these forces were diametrically opposed. It became even more frustrating when combined with the frequently over-poetic (and often pedantic) nature of Red and Blue’s letters to each other. I found myself hoping they’d stop describing a damn flower and tell me what the heck they were fighting about.
Jeriann: I liked the poetic imagery used in the letters, though I do agree that in the beginning, I wished for more explanation of the reasons for and goals of this war. There is a lot of scene setting for a book where the individual environments are completely irrelevant to the plot. Eventually, we learn that Red is from a post-singularity tech-based society, and Blue is from a place called “Garden,” which is, predictably, nature-centric. Both societies exist as somewhat collective consciousnesses, though there is individuality at some level. So our agents can keep secrets, but they must guard them closely, as most of their knowledge is accessible by the rest of their communities and communication with individual members of the opposing force is basically treason.
Bethany: I got a very Matrix meets Halo (Red vs Blue, anyone?) vibe from the descriptions of the sides.
As Red and Blue get to know each other through their correspondence, we get glimpses of what a reality in which time is easily tampered with would look like. Red discusses visiting Atlantis countless times to fix and re-fix minutiae that eventually result in slightly different outcomes. Different timelines are referred to as strands, whose numbers function like coordinates, individual locations reading like “strand 622 C19 Beijing.” Red and Blue discuss knowing different versions of historical figures, as well as occasionally interacting with the same people in the same strand, but at different times. All in all, we get a great idea of how confusing time becomes once it becomes nonlinear.
Bethany: I struggled with many of the slightly-off references each character made to familiar historical events, often thinking, “Wait, I thought that…” before realizing the character is probably referring to some other strand where the Trojan’s gift wasn’t a horse. Thank goodness it wasn’t necessary to keep track of all of the vague historical references and which strand they came from!
Jeriann: I was also thankful that the chapters started to deviate from the established pattern before too long. The repetition was starting to make the book drag a little. Though, the characters being super soldiers really helped keep a good amount of action in what is otherwise a beautifully sappy love story.
Bethany: The two characters do not come face-to-face for the majority of the book, seeing each other only in vague peripherals while accomplishing (or failing) their respective missions. They simply come to respect each other based on their work and love each other based on their words. It was a refreshing change from the “compulsive physical need overriding general dislike” trope I often see in my romance novels.
Jeriann: Both the characters are always referred to by the pronouns “she/her/hers,” despite their physical forms changing with individual missions. They live as different sexes in different strands, sometimes living long lives with partners, sometimes dropping quickly in and out of a time and place. Their relationships with humans are mostly mission-serving, and neither gets any jealousy over hearing of the others’ romantic pairings.
Bethany: They aren’t always human, either. Or on planet Earth.
Jeriann: I like that this reality isn’t limited to just humans or Earth, but I feel like it could have gone further. The worlds our protagonists originate from are not much like ours, but the settings we see them in are primarily human/Earth-centric. The historical and mythological references most likely function to keep things relatable for the reader, but I would love to see this take place in a reality even more divorced from our own.
The book dips its toes into dystopia toward the end, showing the realities each character began fighting for, complete with flaws. Red’s techno-wonderland is brutal and invasive when necessary (think Ultron’s destruction of JARVIS in Avengers: Age of Ultron) while Garden shows no sympathy toward infected organic matter, severing anything potentially dangerous from its consciousness swiftly.
Bethany: There were parts of this book, especially the parts that included Red’s boss “Commandant,” that I found too brutal for my stomach. I struggled to get through the violent realities they created and manipulated in order to reach their own, presumably “happy” ending.
Jeriann: Commandant was super unsettling, which both creeped me out and made me want more, proving that I’ve been watching way too many b-horror movies.
Bethany: Well, I’m not going to argue with that conclusion…
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a fun, at times beautiful portrayal of time travel, with some exploration of war. These characters are dedicated to their causes, but by being introduced to someone outside their world, they come to question things they once took for granted. The romance functions as societal commentary as well as character development, which added some nice depth. Though some parts did drag for us, we both desperately wanted to know whether the characters got a happy ending. But you’ll have to read the book to find out!