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

This Is How You Lose the Time War, the 2020 Hugo Award-winning novella by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a must-read for lovers of wordplay, science fiction and thought-provoking literature.

This Is How You Lose the Time War Synopsis:

This Is How You Lose the Time War Book Review - Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Cowritten by two beloved and award-winning sci-fi writers, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epic love story spanning time and space.

Gallery / Saga Press (July 2019)

Genre: Literature, Sci-Fi-Fantasy, Romance, Thriller, Adventure

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Wow. Not the most erudite way to begin a review of such an intellectually stimulating novella I know. But there it is… just in case I fail to do this title justice in the text that follows.

When This is How You Lose the Time War began receiving high praise from early reviewers that included the words ‘epic’ (odd for a novella) and ‘poetic’, I became intrigued enough to purchase this new release. Could hardcore, compelling science fiction be conveyed in artistic, lyrical prose?

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone have demonstrated that it can be done. And, that to do so can tremendously expand the scope not just for world- and character-building, but also for readers’ emotional engagement.

She seeds the Strand 9 Amazon Basin with defanged versions of European superbugs ten centuries before first contact, and when conquistadors arrive, the face locals by the millions, strong, thriving communities that won’t perish by mere contact.

In regards to the time-travelling construct and the nature of the different worlds, warring parties and even the lead characters themselves, I felt like I was constantly being challenged. Challenged to break out of stereotypical thought patterns and open my mind to possibilities not yet considered. What gender are Red and Blue? Does it matter? Do they even have a gender?

She removes her glove, and slits her finger. Rainbow blood wells and falls and splatters into gray.

Epistolary narrative

Through the exchange of letters, painstakingly composed and hidden where the other will stumble across them years (even millennia) later, they too learn the nature and experiences of the other.

Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.

With each tantalising letter exchanged between the pair, authors El-Mohtar and Gladstone smash through preconceived ideas of not just the time travel genre, but also romantic drama and suspense. Reading Red and Blue’s lovingly crafted correspondence peppered with wit and fecund metaphor feels increasingly voyeuristic.

However, This is How You Lose the Time War will not be to everyone’s tastes. James Lovegrove (Financial Times) said:

The book trades heavily on its poetical prose style, a welter of ripe imagery and whimsical wordplay that now and then throws up a knuckle-gnawingly overblown sentence … One gets the sense of the two authors thinking more of impressing each other with their fancifulness than entertaining the reader.

I would agree this novella has its weaknesses. There were times when I found myself so entranced in the words that I lost track as to which character was penning the letter. Literary excess is certainly present, but often in a satirical manner. I enjoyed the playful jibes at those who write such artistic prose.

A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet.

And, Red and Blue (the characters) are seeking to impress/woo each other with their written compositions. They hang on every word steeped in meaning. In that respect, this novella reads as a celebration of the beauty and power of communication, and of open-mindedness.

If you love language and ambitious, thought-provoking fiction, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War will make memorable reading. A deserving winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5  —  Overall 4.25

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2020 Hugo Award winning This is How You Lose the Time War, Review

Related Reads:
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas  /  To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis  /  Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen  /   The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger  /  A Wrinkle In Time: Graphic Novel by Hope Larson (Madeleine L’Engle)

About the Authors, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author, editor, and critic. Her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron” won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and was a finalist for the World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Aurora, and Eugie Foster awards. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different kinds of honey. She contributes criticism to NPR Books and The New York Times. Her fiction has most recently appeared on Tor and Uncanny Magazine, and in anthologies such as The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. She is presently pursuing a PhD at Carleton University and teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa. She can be found online at @Tithenai.

Max Gladstone is the author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence, which Patrick Rothfuss called “stupefyingly good”. The sixth book, Ruin of Angels, was released September 2017. Max’s interactive mobile game Choice of the Deathless was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared on Tor and in Uncanny Magazine, and in anthologies such as XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. John Crowley described Max as “a true star of 21st-century fantasy”. Max has sung in Carnegie Hall and was once thrown from a horse in Mongolia.

Other reviews of This Is How You Lose the Time War

“Red and Blue’s correspondence, preserved in this charming and incisive novella, explode those binaries into a color spectrum so vast that the eye is constantly discovering new shades the closer it gazes and the longer it looks.” — Den of Geek

This is How You Lose the Time War is the kind of handsome, charged novella that rewards repeated close reading.” —

“Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay.” — Publishers Weekly