Review: This is How You Lose the Time War

Signed copy of the novel

I was­n’t going to buy any books on our Ottawa trip. I was­n’t. I have too many books already at home.

Then we were walk­ing back to the hotel from Byward Mar­ket, and we stopped in at Chap­ters, and I found myself in the SF/F sec­tion hold­ing a copy of This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar (an Ottawa writer) and Max Glad­stone. I opened the book, intend­ing to skim the first chap­ter and then set it back on the shelf, intend­ing to go home and request a copy from my local library.

But I found Amal’s sig­na­ture on the title page, and well, long sto­ry short, I bought the book.

It’s a wild ride, a time-trav­el novel­la about two agents work­ing on oppo­site sides of a time war. Red works for the Agency, a tech-based orga­ni­za­tion, and Blue works for Gar­den, an orga­ni­za­tion that might be an organ­ism. They write each oth­er let­ters across the time­lines, the threads of his­to­ry and future, at first to taunt each oth­er (“Nyah nyah, you’re gonna lose!” “Are not!” “Are too!”) and, lat­er, as they get to know each oth­er, to express their feel­ings for each oth­er.

The epis­to­lary affair spans all of his­to­ry, most­ly in var­i­ous ver­sions of Earth (at one point, one of the char­ac­ters goes to see Romeo and Juli­et, to find out if it’s a tragedy or a com­e­dy in her cur­rent time­line), but some­times on oth­er worlds or even in the vac­u­um of space. Red and Blue’s rela­tion­ship pro­gress­es upthread and down­thread, through past and future, in let­ters writ­ten in some of the weird­est stegano­graph­ic ways I’ve seen: one is writ­ten in a vol­cano, anoth­er in a thorn­bush grown over a year from a seed. Only one, if I recall cor­rect­ly, is writ­ten in ink on paper.

The writ­ing itself—Amal’s and Max’s, I mean, not Red’s and Blue’s—is beau­ti­ful­ly wrought, by turns amus­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing. Moments as calm and sedate as a woman braid­ing her hair or enjoy­ing tea con­trast with the same woman, pages lat­er, wash­ing her hands after slit­ting some­one’s throat.

And the lan­guage! I’m pret­ty proud of my vocab­u­lary, but the authors, in their search for le mot juste, more than once sent me to the dic­tio­nary to make sure I under­stood the pre­cise point or image they were try­ing to con­vey.

I enjoyed the novel­la, with its twists and turns, its hunter-vs.-hunted sto­ry chas­ing itself down the cor­ri­dors of time. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

Buy it from McNal­ly-Robin­son or Indiebound.