Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War + Small Discussion

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.

36516585This 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.

ThatGameIt 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.

Book review · historical fiction · Short fiction

Not-So-Short Reviews of Short Fiction

Today, I’m reviewing some short stories and novellas I read recently.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

29635542Egyptian steampunk paranormal murder mystery? Yes.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo is one of the best shorts I’ve read in a while. The first thing I thought after finishing this story was how I wanted more from this world, and then I remembered that the novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015 will be set there too. I was already anticipating it because I loved The Black God’s Drums, but now? I can’t wait.

Anyway, this is a story about an Egyptian investigator, Fatma, trying to understand if a suspicious Djinn “suicide” was actually what it looked like. It’s an atmospheric, beautiful story set in a world with a rich mythology and an even more interesting steampunk-like technology. One thing I loved about P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums was seeing the magic and the steampunk aspects coexist, and I think I liked the setup even more here? So much magic and mystery.

My rating:  ★★★★½

All the Time We’ve Left To Spend by Alyssa Wong

All the Time We’ve Left To Spend is a short story by one of my favorite short fiction authors, Alyssa Wong, which was initially published in Robots & Fairies, an anthology I had no interest in if not for this story – which has been reprinted on Fireside Magazine (and it’s free there!).

Like all Alyssa Wong’s stories I’ve read so far, All the Time We’ve Left To Spend is queer and haunting, and just as I expected, I loved everything about it. It’s about Ruriko, a Japanese girl who is visiting a hotel where the memories of the dead members of a pop band are preserved. The sci-fi technology was really interesting to read about, but that wasn’t the only reason I loved it.

I often say that I don’t like sad queer stories, and this is very much a sad story following a queer mc. It’s about a love between two women that can’t be,  about yearning and memories, but it worked for me. It’s beautifully written and unique and not just queer pain for the sake of it – the subtle difference between queer pain and queer characters being sad just like everyone else can be.

My rating:  ★★★★★

Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield

39332603Great concept, messy execution.

A novella about a biracial time-traveling highwaywoman who robs sexual predators with the help of her scientist girlfriend sounded like the best thing ever. In reality, this was so confusing that I didn’t enjoy reading it at all.

As usual for SFF novellas, the pacing isn’t great, and this story managed to feel both watered down – because the characters didn’t have any depth – and too complicated to be crammed in such a short book. This book is about a war between time travelers, and it attempted to explain what was happening, but I didn’t understand any of it.
I have to say that I’m not at my best mentally, and maybe that’s the reason everything about this book felt foggy. I feel foggy. But anyway.

I thought most of this book would be about Alice Payne, our sapphic half-Caribbean highwaywoman with a scientist girlfriend. It’s not. It’s not, and the girlfriend character is so flat that the “romance” didn’t make me feel anything. Far more space is given to Prudence, an African-Canadian time traveler from 2070, and the time travel war she’s involved with. It would have been less of a problem if I had understood anything about that time travel war.

This novella attempted to say some things about time travel and the difficult choices involved, but not enough time was spent on them. What about the fact that by avoiding a war not only you might create other wars, but you’re also erasing from history a lot of people who currently exist or that have existed? (Hi! I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t have existed had WW2 not happened)
I don’t know, something that attempts to talk about the ethics of time travel without talking about that will feel superficial to me. The main characters wonders whether she will still exist, and that’s all we get.

However, this book did get some things right. Not only the concept is awesome, so is the first chapter, and it’s also obviously well-researched. It’s also short enough that it never gets boring.

My rating: ★★½

A Human Stain by Kelly Robson

33181280I think I just don’t like Kelly Robson’s short fiction. I tried her novella Water of Versailles earlier this year and thought it was mediocre, and then this. I can’t even understand why it was nominated for a Nebula, much less won (when Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time, a story with… actual depth and queer characters who are not just There To Suffer, was right there!).

Anyway, all this managed to do was to put together a pointless, vaguely creepy but too vague to be actually interesting and cheaply tragic historical horror story that was disgusting without any depth to it.

I really don’t get this.

My rating: ★

Have you read any good short fiction lately?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift

Paris Adrift is a fantasy book about the way small events can shape people, places, and the destiny of humanity itself.

One of the main strengths of this book is the atmosphere. The descriptions of Paris through time – the crowded bars of 2017, the theaters of 1875, the alternate dystopian city of 2042 – are vivid and fascinating.

The main character is Hallie, a young woman who is on a gap year from her geology studies. She is running from her family, from her past, and in some way from herself, but at Millie’s there’s something awaiting for her: the staff will quickly become her new family, and in the keg room there’s the anomaly – time travel.
Millie’s, as it turns out, is a very special place.

All the characters and their friendships were memorable and well-developed. Even the romance, which I didn’t like for half of the novel, slowly grew on me. By the end of the book, I loved Hallie and Léon.

Paris Adrift is also really diverse (a diverse ensemble cast!). The main character struggles with panic attacks, which I had never seen before in an adult fantasy novel; there are side characters who are Colombian and Algerian; there’s a side f/f couple.
The only thing I didn’t love was how some words like psychopath, schizophrenic and borderline were sometimes used in a disparaging way/to describe a character who was acting weird (and that’s not what those words mean).

My favorite character was the mysterious chronometrist; she was unsettling in the best way.
This book does have its creepy moments – the anomaly isn’t exactly a benevolent entity, and time-travel in the catacombs isn’t a pleasant experience either.

Paris Adrift is a story that weaves together time travel and modern politics, exploring many relevant themes. Maybe it will feel dated sooner, but it also feels more real, more grounded.

I flew through this book. I always wanted to know what was going to happen; the short chapters helped. It’s divided into nine parts, and this could have felt disjointed, but the transition was never awkward. I never knew which direction the story would take next.

My rating: ★★★★¾