Today, I will be reviewing This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, and also talk about a short story I really recommend reading before/after reading this novella, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn.
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a novella about a love that transcends time, space and humanity. It’s beautiful and lyrical and heartbreaking; it’s all of these things and I loved its ending so much that I don’t feel like I can do this story justice with a review. Just know that, while this is an epistolary f/f enemies-to-lovers story set during a time-travel war, calling it that feels almost reductive.
It follows two entities, “Red” and “Blue”, both presenting as women but who don’t strictly adhere to our definition of what a human is, and there’s a time war. If you’re the kind of person who needs to know the reasons and the workings of everything, this won’t work for you; it’s often vague, but as I didn’t feel like much more context was needed, I didn’t have a problem with that.
The writing in here will be polarizing. At times, I hated it: it was pretentious, and it made me feel like the authors were trying to show off how many pretty sentences they were able to string together without saying that much at all. But in other places it was beautiful and powerful, and the foreshadowing was woven into this story effortlessly – which only makes sense in something about braiding time.
And you know what else makes sense? That a story about Red and Blue writing to each other would be 90% Purple prose.
In one of my updates, I said that I wondered whether this started out as a short story. If you’ve ever read some short fiction on online magazines, you probably recognize the metaphor-heavy style and the vagueness of the worldbuilding, and I mean, if I’m going to read something that short, I want something really pretty that will make me feel and won’t need that much background to do so. I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had toned all of this here a bit down, however.
My rating: ★★★★½
On What I Got From This
The major spoiler is hidden but there could be small ones
It’s weird how sometimes reading a book can help you understand something you read years before.
You should know, from that title, that This Is How You Lose the Time War will be in some way about someone losing a war involving time travel. And it is. But the question that is woven between its lines isn’t “how could they have won”: it’s “can you ever win a war?” Can a successful war effort ever be seen as a victory? The title tells you, this is how you lose.
A certain character says, at the end:
This is how we win. Losing the war – letting go of it – is winning at life.
It reminded me so much of a few lines that had stuck with me in a short story I loved in 2017, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn. A few lines that had something important to tell me, and I knew that, but while I loved the story, I didn’t really get what¹.
For some context: the war has ended, and the main character Calla (who is Enith, non-telepathic) is playing chess against a telepath (a Gaanth, so someone who was an enemy – at least on paper – until very recently) and employing a specific anti-telepath strategy. One of the other Gaanth says:
“This is how you won,” one of them said, amazed. He wasn’t talking about the game.
“No,” Calla said. “This is how we failed to lose.”
I think I know what it means, now. Winning would imply there was something positive about the whole thing, and there wasn’t, there had never been. The deceptively happy tone of the story is a happiness built from ruin, so fragile and so impactful, and it might feel naive at times, but sometimes you need to let go of that cynicism. Sometimes you need to let go and rebuild.
¹ something about 17-year-old me: she kept falling in love with books she didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain why. It was something like a message hidden, something that resonated with me in ways I didn’t have words for – the biggest example of this is The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, a story about perfectionism that I didn’t even understand was about perfectionism until I reread it.