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

This Is How You Lose the Time War
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Published by Saga Press in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Guys, I am CRUSHED. On paper, I was so sure this was going to be a 500-star read for me. I mean, a sci-fi novella about a pair of star-crossed, time-travelling lesbian assassins?? In epistolary format???? HELL YES.

But after reading it, I just felt… disappointed.


Everything that looked good on paper just fell apart in execution.

Let me back up. In This Is How You Lose the Time War, we follow two rival agents, Red and Blue, throughout their missions in the time war. Red is a spy from the Agency, a “techy-mechy dystopia” led by the Commandant, and Blue hails from the Garden, a “viny-hivey elfworld” led by a Mother-Earth consciousness. Despite these superficial differences, their two societies operate in similar ways: Both are Orwellian regimes that encourage conformity and discourage individuality—a directive that isn’t enforced so much as chosen—and both seem to exist solely to outmanoeuvre each other in the time war.

First off, I want to give credit where credit is due—the concept of the “time war” is very clever. Most time-travel stories go something like this: a person or a small group of people go back (or forward) in time, change one thing, and then travel back to the presentonly to realize that they’ve irreversibly messed up the course of history. But in this novella, the entire point is to mess up the course of history, and to keep tampering with its many iterations.

Pretty cool, right? But the concept has inherent flaws. First of all, if it’s possible for two whole societiesand not only one person or a small group of people—to keep going back and forth in time to tamper with events, then the war can go on endlessly. It’s also not clear what the objective of each side is, so we never know who’s winning or losing. So while I was initially delighted by the many different time periods that the authors reimagined—from the Inca empire to a labyrinth of bones in prehistoric times and even to Atlantis (my personal favourite)—I eventually became bored with it, because I couldn’t see the point. After some time, these vignettes began to feel the authors flexing their writing skills rather than events crucial to the plot.

The premise also makes for some thorny issues in storytelling. For a novella with so many possible iterations of history to make sense at all, there had to be a focal narrative in the story, and in this case the focal narrative became the love story. Now, even if I was able to ignore the fact that the version of Red and Blue we’re following remain curiously unaffected by the tamperings throughout time, I found the development of the romance difficult to believe. Part of it might be the epistolary format: The authors chose to portray the transition from enemies to lovers by purpling the prose (Red actually points this out in her own letter, but this self-referential move doesn’t make it any less excusable), so much so that I resorted to skimming the letters in the latter half of the book. 

I also found it difficult to connect with either Red or Blue as characters. They’re just too perfect. Get this: They’re both the top agents in their field, seasoned and wily genius-assassins who have a way with weapons and with words, and they never make mistakes. This makes Red and Blue ‘cool’, I suppose, but not relatable. They make me feel like the new girl who desperately wants to sit with the most popular kids in school.

I have to say, though, that what kept me going despite all my reservations was the writing, especially in how the authors wrote about time. Here’s an excerpt from Blue’s first letter to Red:

I shall confess to you here that I’d been growing complacent. Bored, even, with the war; your Agency’s flash and dash upthread and down, Garden’s patient planting and pruning of strands, burrowing into time’s braid. Your unstoppable force to our immovable object; less a game of Go than a game of tic-tac-toe, outcomes determined from the first move, endlessly iterated until the split where we fork off into unstable, chaotic possibility—the future we seek to secure at each other’s expense.

But then you turned up.

My margins vanished. . . .

I love how wonderfully imaginative and intuitive it is to describe time as “strands”, “threads”, or “braids”, and the host of verbs that come with that metaphor. It immediately makes apparent the idea of multiple timelines, and hints at the delicacy and craftsmanship involved in Red and Blue’s work.

In sum, while This Is How You Lose the Time War is a beautifully-written reinvention of the time-travel trope, I found the world-building and character development lacking, and the transition from enemies to lovers too abrupt to be believable. 3 out of 5 stars.

Rating Summary

  • The Sci-Fi: ★★★☆☆
  • The Romance: ★★☆☆☆
  • The Characters: ★★★☆☆
  • The Writing: ★★★★☆
  • Verdict: ★★★☆☆
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from February 26-March 11, 2020

2 thoughts on “Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

  1. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I thought this book sounded so bizarre and wonderful, and yet I had very little idea from the synopsis what it was actually about. It’s very helpful to see such a balanced review of the pros and cons, and get a better sense of the story! But I am sorry to see it didn’t turn out as well for you as you’d hoped.

    1. Thank you! It wasn’t what I hoped particularly because I wanted to see more of the world but got more romance instead, but I definitely still think it’s worth a read for the writing and the premise. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do pick it up. 🙂

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