This is How You Lose the Time War
A short novel on time travel, forbidden love & more
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a poetic masterpiece of sci-fi writing.
After her victory in a bloody battle, an agent of the future senses the presence of a formidable foe. She finds a letter addressed to her. Is it a trap? She cannot resist reading and answering the letter, and thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two enemies, Red and Blue.
The agents, both identifying as female, not only try to outsmart each other during their field missions across time, they also try to find the most inventive ways to communicate with each other.
“The letter begins in the tree’s heart. Rings, thicker here and thinner there, form symbols in an alphabet no one present knows but Red. The words are small, sometimes smudged, but still: ten years per line of text, and many lines. Mapping roots, depositing or draining nutrients year by year, the message must have taken a century to craft.”
The opponents are keen on winning, yet they respect each other’s cleverness from the start. They are equals and from their equality grows a fondness, which in turn leads to teasing and joy. “If we’re to be at war, we might as well entertain one another.”
Their friendship consolidates through genuine curiosity. “Do your kind eat anymore?” Blue asks. “Do you sleep, Red, or dream?” The letters become more and more personal as they start to share memories, recommend books, and try to explain to each other how they relate to life.
“I have been birds and branches. I have been bees and wolves. I have been ether flooding the void between stars, tangling their breath into networks of song. I have been fish and plankton and humus, and all these have been me. But while I’ve been enmeshed in this wholeness—they are not the whole of me.”
Inevitably, yet almost imperceptibly, Red and Blue fall in love. It doesn’t become clear to them until they meet in the field and Blue saves Red’s life.
“Slowly, keeping her wound out of sight, she walks where Red can see her. Keeping her distance, of course, and the words padded past in some dimness of mind. She does not look wounded; she is certain. She looks at Red and sees tears on her face.”
In their next letters, they reveal their true feelings. They warn each other of possible threats, shadows following them, their agencies testing their loyalty, suspecting them of treason, double-dealing. They wonder when their love arrived. It’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been there.
But keeping love alive on battlefields, in decaying cities, with the future of humanity at stake—how is it done?
This gorgeous short novel gives an answer to this question and made me want to read the book all over again.
This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, July 2019, Saga Press.
More recommendations for fiction? Read my words on Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth.