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

“But wars are dense with causes and effects, calculations and strange attractors, and all the more so are wars in time. One spared life might be worth more to the other side than all the blood that stained Red’s hands today. A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet. Or her child does, or a smuggler she trades jackets with in some distant spaceport. And all this blood for nothing.”

El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War

Both epic and intimate in scale, This is How You Lose the Time War is a brilliant collaboration between science fiction authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. A dance through space-time, it’s a story about rivals from opposing sides in a war for survival, in what El-Mohtar described as a “time-crossed love story.”

Red and Blue are rival agents in a war that stretches throughout space and time. Shifting “upthread into the stable past or downthread into the fraying future” in multiple iterations of the universe, the two women engage in clandestine operations in order to ensure the very survival of their separate timelines. Garden agents, like Blue, embed into a universe as individuals and live entire lifetimes, bending histories to change the future in the process. As a fisherman in Newfoundland, Blue’s actions save the fishery and ultimately usher in the age of oil; as an apothecary’s apprentice, she takes advantage of a “delicate opportunity – one womb quickened, another slowed.” Agents like Red work for The Agency and take a more militant and precise approach to tweaking realities in order to achieve their ends. Red dips into and out of timelines to join the ancient Greek senators who assassinate Caesar, or to promote the genius of a Quechua woman whose ideas might potentially save her people “when Pizarro’s grotesque sails belly up from the south.”

One day, as Red victoriously stalks the smoking ruins of a battlefield, she spies something out of place, a “sheet of cream-colored paper” where there should have been “bodies mounded between the wrecks of ships that once sailed the stars.” Against her better judgement she reads what turns out to be a letter from Blue, thus forging a link between the two which will change everything.

“Some time later, a bee zips past her ear and dances before her, amid the spray. She reads the letter it writes on air and feels a sickness around the flame in her chest.”
Red, I love you. Red, I will send you letters from everywhere telling you so, letters of only one word, letters that will brush your cheek and grip your hair, letters that will bite you, letters that will mark you. I’ll write you by bullet ant and spider wasp; I’ll write you by shark’s tooth and scallop shell; I’ll write you by virus and the salt of a ninth wave flooding your lungs; I’ll –
stop, here, I’ll stop.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War

The story is told in a series of letters between Red and Blue, and they are “letters” in the broadest sense of the term. The missives are disguised in the pulsing dance of a bee or as “the shifting colors” of lava spilling over a volcano’s caldera. They are hidden messages, taunts in the beginning but which grow more earnest as their friendship develops. The women pour themselves into their secret letters that are the only way they can ever meet: “Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt. But butterfly wings break when touched. Red knows her own weaknesses as well as anyone. She presses too hard, breaks what she would embrace, tears what she would touch to her teeth.”

Braided Hearts, K. Hydrick 2020

El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s prose is beautiful, and verges on the edge of poetic. The authors are adept at switching between the sweeping and the quotidian: both bloody interstellar battles and villagers weaving reeds by the water are treated with the same attentive regard. Although the chaos of time-travel constitutes a substantial part of the narrative it is handled with deft skill and never feels forced or unrealistic, as time-travel so often can in literature. As Red and Blue’s relationship intensifies, they find beauty and companionship in the discovery of the “other.” Their love letters, for that is what they slowly become, riff on history and philosophy, music and art, base needs and undreamed of desires. 

The fact that the relationship is between two women was a conscious choice by El-Mohtar and Gladstone. It may seem insignificant to some, but the presence of strong, intelligent female characters, that don’t feel like afterthoughts, was supremely refreshing. The authors began writing the book in 2016 amid the U.S. presidential election, when increasingly vitriolic language about women was being spewed daily in the news. At first questioning the relevance of the novel to the world today, El-Mohtar eventually realized that “[w]omen talking to women, women loving each other in the fullness of our differences – women of colour, trans women, queer women, older women and younger women – is a political act, a refusal to accept the erasure of our names, achievements and lives.” In this respect the book fits quite well with the times. 

Though the novel could be solidly classified as sci-fi it has enough else going on – undaunted feminism, sensuous intellectualism, commentary on history, literature, and art – that it’s hard to categorize. This Is How You Lose the Time War is a unique story of love between disparate women who, by reaching out to the other, find they are not so dissimilar after all.

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

198 pages

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