Tuesday, 9 July 2019

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

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a short novel about two time-travelling agents who start corresponding with each other. It's written in a poetic style and is half-epistolary, half-prose.

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

And 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.

Except discovery of their bond would be 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?

This is a remarkable book, told in a very poetic style, with chapters alternating between snippets of our characters’ lives and the letters they send each other. Although it is written as prose, one feels as though one is reading poetry. The use of imagery and metaphor is strong and frequent and the relationship between the characters shifts as they become more obsessed with each other as they learn more about the other.

At first I had difficulty keeping the characters straight in my mind — Red and Blue, from futures Garden and Agency, wait, which was which again? — but then it became clearer as they obtained more identifying characteristics. There was [the one that had happened to] and [the one that did this thing], to keep it spoiler-free. I started reading this book while travelling and I don’t recommend reading it in a noisy environment. It was easier to enjoy at home, calmly. Or at least with noise-cancelling headphones on. It is the kind of book that demands your full attention to properly take in its words and worlds.

I don't generally like spending too much time comparing books to other things, but it feels particularly topical in this case. This Is How You Lose the Time War is a book that pushes many if the same buttons as Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman or Killing Eve but with a more poetic writing style than Good Omens and more emphasis on the relationship between enemy agents than Killing Eve. (I speak of the TV show Killing Eve, here — the books it’s based on look dreadful.) Also, in the struggle for a better future, no one side is clearly better than the other, which is not how most oppositional relationships are portrayed. In Killing Eve, Villanelle is the assassin so MI6 agent Eve clearly has the moral high ground. And things are both more and less ambiguous in Good Omens, where the two sides are literally heaven and hell. But if you liked either of those stories for their protagonist relationships, this is the book for you. Especially if you wished there was more time travel in them.

Actually, before I wrap up, I will say a few words on the time travel aspect. It's both integral to the story and sort of minimally done. No mechanics are explained, which makes sense for the style of the book, and all the time travel feats are basically magic, as far as we mere time-bound mortals are concerned. Sometimes that sort of thing bothers me, but in this case it fits in perfectly with the style of the book. The time travel is absolutely not the point, the letters between Blue and Red are, and doing it any other way would have been bizarre. For all that I've said the prose is very poetic, it's also very sparse (in the way of poetry, now that I think about it). For this reason, it took me a little while at the start of the book to feel grounded in the story (or as grounded as one can be in such a story) but, again, it makes perfect sense for what it is.

I really liked this book. I highly recommend it to fans of doomed and/or oppositional romance (is that the right term?), poetic letters and magical time travel. It's a quick read but a powerful one. If you're not sure whether the style is right for you, I think it's something you could quickly determine by reading the sample chapters on your favourite ebook store. In any case, I highly recommend This Is How You Lose the Time War.

5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2019, Jo Fletcher Books
Series: No, I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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