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.