Book Review

this is how you lose the time war by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

more mediocre writing slash "lauded genre writing"

written c. 9th or 10th april (woah, ages ago!)

My final paycheque until the world restarts now banked, I spent a stressful hour trying to fill in the Canadian government website that should – in theory – secure me a free two grand a month until this chaos is over. I have no idea if I did it right and I likely won’t find out if I did it wrong for ages. Still, I suppose, if no cash comes to me, I’ll just have to do it again and hope for the best! Fun fun!

In order to relax myself after engaging with bureaucracy, I opened up a collaborative time travel novel[la] by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War.

As I mention from time to time, I enjoy time travel narratives, but what This Is How You Lose The Time War made me realise is that the time travel narratives I enjoy are ones in which the different time periods are not very dissimilar, and in which the locations are exactly the same.

For me, time travel narratives are wild exciting when cause and effect are reversed, when the time travel is relied upon to close up all narrative threads and where – crucially – the time travel does not exist in an infinite multiverse scenario where any changes create new, infinite, realities. This, alas, is what This Is How You Lose The Time War does.

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As a time travel novel, for me, This Is How You Lose The Time War left a lot to be desired (e.g. there’s a “twist” reveal that one character’s shadowy but unthreatening mysterious stalker is an older version of themself), but as a quirky romance, it is a rip-roaring success.

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Red and Blue are strange future creatures that can shapeshift and leap between time and space and different versions of reality at will. They are both soldiers in the titular “time war”, each fighting for a rival organisation, each at the top of their game.

Red and Blue travel through these different versions of the universe at different times, killing, saving, creating and/or destroying as is demanded by their superiors in the pursuit of new “threads” that support the eventual shady goals of their side.

As rivals and equals, Red and Blue begin an epistolary conversation, and their discussions soon turn to personal and then military secrets, as they become entwined in a romance-by-letter that would have either of them executed were it to be discovered.

The novel is structured in alternating parts focusing on each of the two protagonists in turn. There is a third person section describing the operative on a mission (e.g. helping to kill Caesar, preventing Atlantis from sinking, space fighting star wars crap, etc), during which they find an elaborately hidden message. The next section is then a letter written in the voice of the rival, then a third person section about that letter writer as they find a letter while they murder or rescue people, then that letter and onwards and onwards. There are lots of short chapters, but almost every chapter takes place in a unique setting, so a lot of time/paper is wasted in the third person sections on scene setting and exposition. It is the letters where the most powerful characterisation occurs, also too where the burgeoning romance grows with clarity. 

Other than a couple of asinine pop culture references, though, the novel does achieve a certain timelessness, within the confines of the science fiction genre. I mean, I don’t read much science fiction (I’m an adult), but there is nothing literarily more sophisticated here than in, say, the Kurt Vonnegut and the Ursula Le Guin I have read from sixty plus years ago. I mean this as both faint praise and soft insult.

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Did I enjoy This Is How You Lose The Time War? Yes, but not loads.

Did I feel that the “acknowledgements in dialogue” section at the book’s end made any satisfying comment on the collaborative process? No.

Had it said that x writer wrote the letters and y writer wrote the third person bits, then I could have gone out and looked up another book by the one who wrote the letters, because the combination of emotionality and swiftly/clearly-drawn fictional worlds is deft and the kind of thing I’m intrigued by enough to read again. Similarly, if it had said that the book was full 50/50, “everyone takes responsibility for everything”, then I would know to be extra cautious when reading a gushing blurb on a book by either of these writers again. This book was fine, but nowhere near approaching greatness.

I’ll be honest: in my opinion, the book has a top-drawer title and good graphic design on the cover and my interest was piqued the first time I saw it. But the novel is inconsistent and takes far far far far far too long to open up into the sections of the book that really work. 

At its heart, This Is How You Lose The Time War is a quirky epistolary romance, overburdened by distracting and pointless exposition and dull narrative. This romance could – and should – have been communicated entirely through letters.

Also at the end there’s one of those “book club discussion” sections, which whenever I encounter make me remember who and how most other people read and then I die a lot inside.

Byeeeee.


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