This is How You Lose The Time War By Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I would like to thank JO Fletcher Books for an advance copy of this novella in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Jo Fletcher Books
Published 16th July
Price – kindle £6.99 paperback £10.00
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter, it reads ‘Burn before reading.’ Thus, begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?
To you, my favourite
I suspect dear reader that you and I both think the written word is the finest way to communicate. Body language is too basic; verbal is often careless but a beautifully crafted page of prose – well now you’re really talking to me. A love of words, themes and motifs is the bond we share and as reader and writer that unusual osmosis of turning written words in ink coming from one brain turn into pictures within your brain the bond deepens – now that’s my kind of language. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone have used the idea of a duet of written correspondence set within a unique science fiction universe of multiple timelines, changing histories a to create an absolutely stunning work of beauty and forbidden love.
Across space and time within the multiverse two all-powerful sides are vying for control of history. The technology originated Agency and the more diffuse organic hive mind of the Garden find themselves in strands of time manipulating events to make the history meet their future needs at the expense of the other side. To achieve this each side has agents working hard to undermine the other manipulating key or sometimes fairly innocuous events in history. Into this comes two particularly notorious agents Red of the Agency and Blue of the Garden who have been thorns in each other’s side for many many occasions. Known for their dedication and unusual grasp of tactics to unsettle the other the two women have been circling each other in various guises, periods and forms ranging from alternate Mongol empires to becoming alien creatures that aren’t even human anymore.
But Red at the scene of one her hardest won triumphs receives a note from Blue, gently pointing out that Blue herself has taken some measures to instead win this battle for a strand of time from beneath her nose. There follows an escalation between the two who in alternating sequences find their schemes thwarted by the other and each time a note to explain themselves is found. Both Red and Blue are intelligent professional women focused on their goals with a sense of humour and yet probably never quite feel comfortable in their own headquarters hence that desire to travel and explore the universe on missions. Red and Blue start to realise that across all of time and space they finally have someone who understands them.
While two people writing letters to each other can sound fairly simple this is an absolute triumph of writing. I think key to this are three elements. Firstly, the letter format. Slowly the letters reveal each has a mutual respect for the other (neither of the agents are viewed by their own side as typical of their species); they start sharing life experiences; their thoughts and the letters evolve into something deeper and more personal Hence the letters are sparky, sarcastic and then allow the agents to finally express themselves (including their secret inner thoughts). They capture that feeling when you start talking to someone and after the initial jokes and sharing of a few views swapping recipes and locations to visit that you realise you’ve found someone who finally understands you at such a deeper level than you thought possible. The letters are flirting, sorrowful, full of subtext and creative themes often based around the particular battle the agents are in; ultimately, they are love letters by two people who circle around each other but cannot meet. Each builds upon the other and the back and forth interplay is just beautiful to read. Two smaller parts to each letter I also loved – how each found another colour based term of affection for the other and that as each agent are highly trained and see and hear in so many different ways that the letters take different forms such as knots in string to even words appearing in a cup of tea – each becomes a unique gift to the other – who needs a bunch of flowers when you have this level of thoughtfulness in a letter to you!
The framing device for each letter being read is also full of inventive ideas. These aren’t two warriors stuck in a ship or on one planet. These are time agents who roam the universe and alternate histories so we have scenes on dying worlds, one of the many doomed Atlantises that can be found, 19th century coffee shops and beaches. Watching each Agent play a long game against the other itself is just impressively in a novella allowing you a huge sense of the scale of this conflict. At the same time, you realise the Garden and the Agency don’t seem to have any major plus points for allowing the other to win – a form of ultra-organic life and technology focused life suggest they would both be as bad as the other in victory. That allows for the final element the growing dread that Red and Blue are increasingly running the risk of discovery and when your army is nearly omnipotent that can have fatal consequences. There is a growing feeling of joy at the love these two can finally express to the other but also fear that someone has certainly realised what is going on and is now on their trail.
This has been a brilliant reading experience. This is for the science fiction fan that wants a tale of language and emotion. It mixes the epic with the personal to a level that just sings with a lot of joy and more than a tinge of sadness. I really cannot stress how much hard work in what seems a wonderful easy flowing dialogue between two characters is so technically well done and that back and forth of ideas, emotions and expressions really builds up character and a sense of an epic battle for the universe. For something different and beautiful this is exactly the kind of story you’ve been waiting for. I suspect this is easily going on 2019’s best of lists so go and pick this up now
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