Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press (July 16, 2019)
Length: 208 pages
Well, for such a short book, this one’s going to be a doozy to review. To be sure, This is How You Lose the Time War is a very imaginative novella, but the style and tone of it is so highly unusual, I doubt it would be for everyone. Honestly, when I picked this one up, I had expected to either love it or hate it—no in between. But in the end, I supposed it surprised me, both in the good way and the bad, and I’ll go into the reasons why in a little bit.
But first, here’s my best attempt at a summary of the story, which will be tough, because like I said, it’s not a very conventional one. At the heart of it is a relationship between two agents fighting on opposite sides of a time war. Red works for the Agency, a highly advanced technological society, whereas Blue represents the Garden, a world steeped in environmentalism and nature. The two factions have been locked in conflict for years, dispatching their skilled agents through time to influence and change the course of history, with neither side coming up on top. But then, in the aftermath of a battle, Red finds a note among the ashes, which reads: Burn before reading. Seeing it as the challenge it is, Red accepts, and what follows is, shall we say, a romance for the ages.
Most of this book is presented in a series of letters, running through a gamut of emotions as the communications between the two rivals turn from hostile to understanding and then to love. Back and forth their letters go between time and distance, sometimes taunting, sometimes playful, but always clandestine as to avoid detection by their superiors. Still, as careful as they are, somehow their secret correspondence has been discovered, and if caught, both Red and Blue will face deadly consequences.
As you can probably tell from this description, This is How You Lose the Time War reads less like a story and more like a conversation. Not surprisingly, the book also requires the reader to put themselves in a whole new frame of mind to appreciate it, focusing not so much on the plot and setting, but more on the characters as well as the tone and nuances of what they say and do. Not going to lie, for someone who prefers more conventional and linear storytelling styles, this was incredibly tough for me to do. I had several false starts with this book, picking it up and putting it aside a few times to wait until I was in a better mood for something so experimental and abstract. I wouldn’t strictly characterize this as strange, but it was definitely different.
I was also intrigued by the descriptions of the writing as beautiful, poetic and elegant, but sadly I was disappointed as I personally found it forced and distracting. Some of the prose was purple to the extreme, with the language in the letters coming across as overly mawkish and teeth-rottingly sentimental. Awkward plant metaphors and other descriptors that will make you scratch your head were thrown all over the place with shameless abandon. Interestingly though, it would seem the authors are cognizant of this at least to some degree, because there was even a comment by one of the characters poking fun at the flowery prose in their own letter. Still, regardless, the writing style really put me off, which took the wind out of the romance’s sails. As a result, I did not feel as connected to Red and Blue or their relationship the way a lot of other readers did, which is a shame.
Still, that the story—such as it was—even contained a romance was admirable. I think that was the element that surprised me the most, even if it did not resonate too well with me. But given a bit more time, and had the prose been a little more candid and less pretentious, I believe it would have worked. The premise of the book and idea between Blue and Red’s love story is just downright bizarre, but I do appreciate an unconventional romance. I was curious to know how it would unfold, and to see what other emotions will come into play as the relationship evolved. Ultimately. it was that interest which helped me get to the end.
But at the end of the day, I can only give This is How You Lose the Time War a middling rating because, well, it neither left me hot nor cold. I did enjoy the ending a whole lot, but overall my feelings towards the book were pretty ambivalent. While I was impressed with its innovative concept and can acknowledge its literary merit, the story’s style just wasn’t to my tastes at all. Red and Blue’s romance didn’t speak to me either, sad to say, though I’m sure the book will have no trouble finding an audience and lots of love.