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

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster, is about two agents – Red and Blue – who travel through time within different universes on behalf of their two competing empires to change history to their own advantage. The story is mainly told through letters that the two leave for each other after completing their missions. Although Red and Blue are fighting each other in opposing camps, a romantic relationship evolves through the exchange of letters.

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 & Max Gladstone

I’ve been told that if you like the series Killing Eve, you’ll like this book as well. I was absolutely thrilled when I heard that it’s a science fiction story with queer main characters traveling through time and alternative universes. While reading it, however, my mood plummeted harder than the ratings for the Oscars this year. Even though I really wanted to like it! Because this book is – phew – confusing.

Where am I and what is happening?

The protagonists refer to themselves as she/her, but they are not really women or even humans, but something else (similar?), which is not further defined. There is also a rather limited effort to describe the plot in general. I would appreciate to have a basic plan of what’s happening and where the action takes place. In addition, the two agents constantly intervene in historical events to which the reader has no actual connection. What kind of universe is this and what is its history?

The thing with the parallel universes is generally more confusing than entertaining. Perhaps it would have made more sense to limit the story to only one universe and travel within time there. This would have made it easier to follow and understand the entire history of this universe. However, that does not seem to be the point of the book. The authors seem much more interested in portraying the love story between Blue and Red as the story of two soldiers who, despite being in warring camps, find each other and overcome the prejudices of their own side.

The “Time War”

That’s all lovely and commendable, but at this point I run into another problem: Why are they actually fighting each other? The war or time war is incomprehensible and creates an overall incoherent picture of the story. What are the motivations? Who exactly is fighting each other? How did they choose their respective sides, or were they able to choose independently at all? I had so many questions while reading. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t give me all the answers I was hoping for.

When Red wins, she stands alone. Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world. […] If the planet lasted long enough, the vines that sprout from the corpses’ mouths would grow berries. It won’t, and neither will they.

Stylistically, the novella is a firework and the language is very poetic. In a way, this makes sense, because we get to know the two protagonists mainly through their letters and thus also through their language. If they wrote as matter-of-factly as the World Health Organization, I doubt anyone would fall in love. There are without a doubt some really beautiful sentences in this book, but overall the language somehow obscures the plot and seems slightly self serving. As if it was the main subject itself rather than just an instrument of storytelling. Some like it, for me personally it’s a bit too much. Watch Killing Eve instead (at least season one).

Rating: 2 out of 5

P.S. I really like the cover art.

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