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.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Saga Press (July 16, 2019)

Length: 208 pages

Author Information: Amal El-Mohtar | Max Gladstone

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.

26 Comments on “Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

  1. To be honest I’m surprised not to have seen more negative reviews for this one. As it is, it worked well for me, but, I do tend to enjoy some quite unusual books sometimes – only now and again though. I really expected this one to have very differing opinions with people either loving or hating it. That being said, it didn’t work for me immediately and in fact by the first third of the book I thought I’d be best putting it down and DNFing but I decided to press on, I think more out of dogged curiosity than anything else. It will be interesting to see a few more differing opinions for this one – make it balance out a little.
    Lynn 😀


    • I’m glad it worked out for you! I loved your review, and I definitely understood why it stood out for you. I really enjoyed its unique premise as well, and loved some of the ideas. Unfortunately, the style just didn’t work for me.


  2. Glad I’m not alone! I had to make myself push through, and I can appreciate what the authors were trying to do, it just wasn’t enough of a story for me.


  3. The reactions to this book which I read so far encompass the whole spectrum from negative to highly appreciative, so it stands to reason that you would feel baffled by the story. While the core theme intrigued me at first, the lukewarm commentaries from you and other fellow bloggers convince me I should skip this one…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂


  4. After reading the publisher’s description of the book I wasn’t sure if this was one that would appeal to me. And after reading this and other reviews I’m even more unsure of it. I do sometimes enjoy experimental books, but it often depends on the mood I’m in. Given all the other books to choose from I don’t know if I’ll get around to this one. They can’t all be winners. Thanks for the review.


    • You’re very welcome, glad I was able to help a bit with my review. I also rely heavily on others reviews to judge whether I’ll like a book or not. I was pretty intrigued by this book when I first heard about it then, but then when the opinions started coming out, I had my doubts this one would be for me. The style is just too challenging.


  5. I can see where this would be a tough one to review! And to be honest I’m a little torn- I love the idea of a time war and agents falling in love across the divide, but the flowery language and some of the other elements you mention have me holding off. Maybe I’ll get it down the road. It does sound like the romance might have worked better had it been written differently.


  6. I waffled back and forth about whether or not to request it since it sounded pretty interesting, but after reading your review I don’t think it would have worked for me. Another solid review as always!


  7. what a relief to know I’m not the only one who had some false starts with this book! Let’s just say it’s a really REALLY good thing that the end was so good. this was an innovative, strange, and not all together enjoyable book to read. And I read shortly after reading Valente’s Space Opera, which was also innovative, strange, and not all that enjoyable to read.


  8. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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