Well, after spending a month talking about horror and horror-related stories, I decided it was time to drastically shift gears and talk about something very different. You know, like romance? I haven’t really talked about any novel that I would consider particularly romantic in the years that I’ve been writing this site, and I don’t really think that that’s too shocking. I’ve never been interested in the usual trappings of what people consider the romance ‘genre,’ and my tastes in storytelling don’t always lead to stories that feel overly romantic, at least in terms of novels. Which certainly isn’t to say that I’m against romance in storytelling, or anything like that, it’s just not something that I find myself purposefully seeking out. It really only ends up hitting me by surprise, reading a novel that I wasn’t fully expecting to be romantic, and being pleasantly surprised. At least, if it’s a well-written romance that doesn’t feel insanely staged, which is actually a very rare gift. So, you can imagine my surprise, and delight, when I cracked open a rather beloved new sci-fi novel that I’d heard great things about, only to discover that it’s not only one of the most interesting novels I’ve read this year, but one of the most legitimately romantic books I’ve ever maybe read.
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a science fiction novel co-written by two people, Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone that takes the form of a series of letters written between two women, both of whom are soldiers in a never-ending conflict between two powerful societies, both of whom have access to time-travel technology, and use it to travel all the various parallel timelines of Earth, shaping events to lead to the best possible outcome for their societies in the future. Both el-Mohtar and Gladstone took the reigns of one of the characters, each writing a letter to the other character and gradually growing their stories. We follow Red, a woman working for the Agency, a technological superpower that creates perfect human through an integration of technology and humanity, sending cyborgs throughout time, and Blue, a woman working for the Garden, a hive-mind society that embraces organic life and a general respect for the power of nature. These two societies have been in a never-ending war, sending various agents through the time-line to fight each other and attempt to change reality around them. Which, is where Red and Blue find themselves in the beginning of the story, two soldiers who have been tasked with causing chaos for the other’s people.
But, something strange happens when Blue decides to reach out to Red. She leaves an intricate letter to her, taunting her and trying to strike up a conversation with her sworn enemy, but also the only other person who maybe understands what her life is. Red decides to respond to the letter, and thus begins a correspondence set over many centuries and alternate timelines, with the women going about their lives and occasionally coming across a new bit of correspondence. And, after a while, this game of taunts begins to transform into friendly rivalry, then into friendship, and eventually into genuine love. They are eventually able to let down their guards, find solace in each other’s words, and begin to realize that this whole war, and the differences between them, mean nothing. It ends up causing quite a bit of problems for both of them as both the Agency and the Garden begin to get suspicious of their actions, leading to assassination attempts on both sides, but through it all Red and Blue fight for the only thing that really matters in their life. Each other.
This is How You Lose the Time War is kind of a difficult novel to really explain. A lot happens in it, but it’s not really a plot heavy story. We get short chapters that explain what Red and Blue are up to in between each letter, and how they find the notes left to each other, but the real bulk of the novel is the letters themselves. And they’re wonderful. It was a brilliant idea to have el-Mohtar and Gladstone each pick characters and run with them, because Red and Blue really do become two fully fleshed out and independent characters, with their own inner lives and motivations, and seeing their correspondence and words becomes instantly enthralling, as we gradually see a relationship bloom and evolve in a beautifully realistic manner. These don’t feel like characters falling in love because that’s what the plot dictates of them, it really does feel like two people forging and growing a connection that takes on many different forms, as a true intimacy forms around them. And, by the end of the story, we see that that connection, that love, is what finally takes these two life-long soldiers and makes them people. And, when they finally see themselves as people, they realize that war is absurd, and decide to quit fighting. They see that being with the people they love is more important than any war or grand struggled, because at the end of the day it’s the people in our lives, and what we meant to each other that truly makes a life worth living, not some sense of national pride or duty, but the complex simplicity of the connections we make with the people who matter most in our lives.
This Is How You Lose The Time War was written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, 2019.
Categories: Page Turners