‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Initial Rating: Highly Recommended  (How I Rate Books)

  • Reviewer’s Note: This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’ll probably top my ‘Best of 2019’ list too.

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Genres: Sci Fi, Time Travel, LGBT, Fantasy, Romance, Adult, Novella/Small Novel, Literary Fantasy, Literary SciFi

Similar books:

  • Circe, in the sense of being a semi-episodic, character based story, with beautiful prose, told over a scope and scale of hundreds if not thousands of years.

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

Here’s the TL;DR for my review (SPOILERS!):

  • Pros
    • Gorgeous, Gorgeous prose.
    • Episodic Time Travel goodness. One moment you’re in the far future, doing battle in starships above dying planets, and the next you’re leading a Mongol Horde across the Steppe.
    • A really, really, really good romance.
      • If you read very many of my reviews you will know that I’m usually indifferent to romance plotlines. Not here. The romance herein is so good that even misanthropic me liked it.
    • The Time War. It was just cool, watching the characters dance around the braid of possible timelines, carefully adjusting events to cause maximum changes in causality down the line.
  • Mixed
    • If you positively detest romances in your Sci Fi/Fantasy, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you do like romance (or are simply indifferent to them like me) chances are you’ll like this.
    • I wanted more. The story ended on a high point, but I would have liked if the authors wrote another chapter or two so we could have a denouemont.
      • That said the story didn’t need a denouemont, but I wanted one.
  • Cons
    • I wanted to see more of the Garden. We barely got to witness it as a faction.

This is probably going to be at the top of my ‘Best Books of 2019’ list. Additionally, there’s a good chance that I’m going to add it to my personal ‘Favorite Books of All Time’ list, somewhere near the top.

In the far future mankind has ascended beyond our mortal form using advanced cybernetics, giving us digital cloud-based omniscience and immortality.

In the far future mankind has ascended beyond our mortal form, using plant-based bioengineering to achieve universal peace via hivemind.

These two possible futures are mutually exclusive. For one to occur, the other must never be.

The Agency runs the cybernetic future, while the Garden runs the bioengineered future. Both have time-travel technology. These two possible futures are at war with one another, striving to become the one-true timeline. Red is the best soldier of the Agency, while Blue is the best soldier of the Garden. They are spies who travel back in time to enforce the will of the Agency/the Garden.

For thousands of years Red and Blue have been been at war with one another, each one setting up events which will lead to the creation of the Garden or the Agency, while the other does their best to undermine those efforts. They dart in and out of the braid of timelines, trying to subtly (and not-so-subtly) nudge events to cause the creation of their mother-time and the destruction of the enemy timeline.

Red, like the Agency, is a blunt object: she brutally destroys billions of lives to ensure the eventual creation of the Agency. Blue is like the Garden: she manipulates the timeline through a casual word here, attentive and loving care there, small actions to cultivate the eventual blooming of the Garden. Both are technically female, but honestly both are so modified/transhuman I don’t think either counts as human anymore.

At Red’s moment of victory, when she is standing alone on the ashes of a dead planet as warships fall from orbit above, Red notices a note left behind for her to read. The note is from Blue, taunting Red, telling Red that even though Red won this battle Blue has successfully evacuated all the important people before Red even showed up.

The always-perfect Red has failed: the Garden got what it wanted.

So Red decides to get revenge.

Red watches the braid of timelines, on the lookout for the subtle manipulations of fate Blue is so adept at using. She finds Blue, thwarts her and leaves behind a note to taunt her enemy. Blue is left laughing at how her patiently-laid schemes were so brutally undone by Red.

Their dance-between-timelines develops a repartee: one time-agent defeats the other, and leaves a note behind. They shouldn’t be in contact with one another: if either the Agency or the Garden knew that their best agent was in communication with the other side, they would be killed for being traitors. But they don’t care. What started as one spy bragging to the only person in all the timelines who is their equal, gradually turns into a friendship, then turns into something more. Without ever seeing or verbally speaking with one another, these two spies fall in love with one another.

Characters: Almost perfect (and I don’t throw around the word ‘perfect’ lightly). This is a novella(a long novella, but still a novella), so the authors favored one character over the other. While both got good development, Red got more development than Blue. As a result I wanted more from Blue.

However the interplay of Red vs Blue, and then the romance of Red with Blue, is just gorgeous to behold. At moments this book had my heart was in my throat when they were in trouble.

And about the romance. Make no mistake: this is a love-story novel first and foremost. I ordinarily don’t like romance subplots in my stories. I don’t know why, I just don’t. But this is something different. The love story is very slow and nuanced. This is such an excellent romance as to make even my stony heart bleed. Even if you don’t usually like books with strong romance components, at least give this a go. This has so much more to offer.

Pacing: This book is told in a epistolary format (aka in the form of letters from one to the other), so each scene includes a letter from one character to the other as well as a brief description of where in time/space they are. I liked this episodic style.

Setting: Is amazing. From spaceship battles in the depths of space, to the Russian Front of WWII, to dying planets, to the death of Caesar, to 1600’s Polynesia, to the Stone Age, to Aztec Mexico, to Golden Mongol Horde-era Asia to… the list goes on. The spies dance from place to place, time to time, making this Time War happen simultaneously at many wheres and whens.

Prose: On the stained glass/windowpane glass paradigm of prose (stained glass=pretty prose, windowpane glass=functionally invisible prose), this book is so far on the stained glass end of the paradigm as to not be funny. This book was just gorgeous on a textual level. I never expected to see a book discuss owl pellets so beautifully, and yet here we are.

Execution: I found that the authors perfectly executed their concept. Their concept was ‘Temporal Cold War love story between two opposing agents,’ and they really pulled it off.

This is a really, really good book. I just finished reading it and then started reading it again. I almost never do an insta-reread; maybe once a decade. But this book did it for me. This is a bite-sized story, but with enough meat on it’s bones to mesmerize the senses. For me, this book is a perfect size: a lot of substance densely packed into a readable size. All flavor and no fat or gristle.

Now chances are you won’t like this as much as me. (How can you when this is one of the best books I’ve ever read? It’s unreasonable for me to expect that everyone will find this equally as good as I.) If you are in the mood for a prose-beautiful book about two time travelling warriors manipulating fate and falling in love, give it a look. Like seriously, give this a look. Even if you find it only half-as-good as I do, chances are you’ll still like it

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