Damn this book was good.
That’s it. That’s the review.
But really, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone quickly became one of the best books I read in 2020. A novella, I started reading in the afternoon…and only put it down when my phone died. I charged my phone and kept reading, finishing later that evening.
I know El-Mohtar as a poet, and she was a WisCon Guest of Honor a few years ago. Gladstone is a sci-fi novelist. Both are Hugo winners. Even so, when I heard they co-wrote a novella about time travelers on opposite sides of the war, I assumed it would be punchy fun, more like a Marvel movie. I didn’t expect it to be poetic, absolutely gorgeously written and lush with description of romance and violence.
(Yes, that was shade to Marvel movies.)
On with the review:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt / Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts / Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
This novella tells the story of two enemy agents communicating via letter. At first the two trade barbs, but they’ve seen the other’s work, and know how good they are. This respect and mutual understanding grows into a dangerous love affair.
The two agents rarely actually cross paths, but I’d say the whole book passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, since the story is built around the two women writing to each other. Despite the fact there are few other characters (and no sideplots, since it’s just a novella), we get a really deep dive into the heads of these women. I loved how distinct they were, and yet how they bonded over their love of communication.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
The writing was lyrical and imaginative, so readers who can’t sink into the words or prefer hard descriptions might not like this one. I thought it was perfect. Gladstone and El-Mohtar knew when to have a light touch. They used metaphor to explain the far-far future science fiction, instead of trapping themselves in a box of rules that might later contradict (time travel can be hard that way). If you’re not sure if you’ll like the writing style, the first two pages will tell you everything you need to know.
However, you’d be missing out on all the great character development, as these enemies become more and more invested in each other, and less invested in the death that makes up their jobs. Suddenly, the never-ending war doesn’t seem as important.
I was pretty surprised to hear Gladstone wrote one perspective and El-Mohtar wrote another. They played off each other very well, and the co-authors must have been just as in sync as their characters to pull this off.
Amal El-Mohtar did a short interview here that illuminates how they developed the novella, which I recommend checking out.
I think of books like this as “dinner.” There’s nothing light and frothy here, and it’s the opposite of a mindless binge watch. You have to sit with the story, and let it digest. I wish I had more media in my life like this: Thoughtful, feminist, and very, very enjoyable.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
This is a really well-done F/F romance, which is often enough to get five points in this section. But going back to my review last week on The Lovebirds, when I read romance I also look for characters who have lives outside of each other. “Red” and “Blue” might be nameless, stripped of their identities through the war. But their personalities shine through the entire story. These women might technically be “post-human females”, but their impact resonated with me long after I finished the book.
Click here to buy This Is How You Lose the Time War, then tell us what you thought in the comments!
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