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Putting It All on the Line: Tiffany Narvaez Reviews "This Is How You Lose the Time War"

Published in 2019, This is How You Lose the Time War is a science fiction, epistolary novella by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone that somehow makes the immense world it's set in something more of a background. We’re introduced to Red, one of the main characters in the novella, who works for the Agency. We as readers are thrust right into a world full of chaos and debris that Red is clearly familiar with. Rather than fill readers in on the world, Time War wastes no time getting straight to the premise: a letter from Blue, one of the strongest members of the Garden, who poses as the antithesis to Red. Blue’s letter is a proposition, and what follows feels like an up-close look at the butterfly effect in action--a seemingly insignificant moment that, down the line, casts everything in an entirely new light.

While we don’t spend much time on building the world in which these two women, Blue and Red, reside, there still is enough action to captivate the reader. Each chapter follows a similar pattern: after a brief introduction into what era and region where each character’s mission is found, we go from the city of Atlantis to England, and many places in between. The premise seems complex yet straightforward--Red and Blue travel through time by “strands,” making small changes to create a ripple effect for a desired event in the future. However, as the title suggests, this is a time war, with the two racing to complete their missions only to find that they’ve been sabotaged by the other. This race not only drives the action, but also gives us an easy understanding of the high risk their correspondence poses--they are designed to be enemies, not penpals.

This correspondence, while risky, is easily one of the novella’s draws. Red and Blue never physically speak throughout most of the novel, but we watch their relationship build through a series of letters. Sent in the most enchanting of ways--grains of rice, tea leaves, a burning flame, and other modes, all with the same conclusion: every letter disappears. These letters evolve over time, with stunning language and personal anecdotes that make you feel as though you are the one being written to, or at least wish you were. And make no mistake, these are love letters. It’s something that neither character seems to be ready for--to have their mundane every day life give way to budding romance. This romance pairs well with the less intense world-building. You feel as though these letters are the most exciting things to happen, something to look forward to. This is because for these characters, for whom time traveling is an everyday occurrence, receiving a letter likely is.

Because of this, I felt as though I was waiting along with these characters. I felt their hopeful anticipation, the rush of a new letter, the adrenaline every time they erased each trace. There’s a growing desperation woven throughout the novella, which comes to a captivating, almost breathless climax. This is How You Lose the Time War is a romance between two women racing both through and against time. What results is a series of love letters that linger, with a new meaning on what it means to put, quite literally, all on the line.

This Is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Simon and Schuster


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