Review: This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (2019)

“There should not be a sheet of cream-colored paper, clean save a single line in a long, trailing hand: Burn before reading.

Red likes to feel. It is a fetish. Now she feels fear. And eagerness.

She was right.”

This Is How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Rating: ★★★★
Genre: Sci-Fi, Post-Apocalyptic
Categories: F/F, time travel

Description: A post-apocalyptic time travel novel written in a swapping-point-of-view style, featuring letters between the protagonists. Red and Blue are operatives from different factions of time travelling organizations trying to manipulate the worlds and their timelines to their own ends. They’re both the best at what they do, and recognize each other’s skill—leading to them starting to secretly, covertly exchange letters, and slowly start to care about each other. Obviously, that has consequences.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. And 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. Except discovery of their bond would be 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?

Impression: This is a very lovely, original book that I highly recommend everyone read – I think there’s a lot to get out of it, and believe that everyone’s experience is going to be different. I’m honestly a little disappointed I didn’t 100% love it, since time travel and sapphic disaster main characters with an undercurrent of post-apocalytpic bodyhorror is completely my jam.

The descriptive prose sections are very lush and evocative (a plus), but this also led to my biggest criticism of the book, which was that it was sometimes very difficult for me to piece together a proper picture of what was actually happening. I think the underlying worldbuilding and conceptualization of the characters, their abilities, their worlds, etc, was rad as hell, but I kept getting snatches and glimpses of really fucking cool things that the narrative then obscured or skipped over, to slippery to grasp. I wanted the pretty prose to dial it back a notch and let me actually sink my teeth into the reality a bit more.

The letters interspersed were a relief in letting the reader really connect to the characters, and I was really on board with the characterization and development. Overall: I’m glad this book exists, and would definitely recommend it to others, but I’m not sure I connected with it to a level where I’d say that it’s a definite favourite, or that I’d revisit it again.

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