This Is How You Lose the Time War


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2021-01-02
    • Tags: #scifi #sciencefantasy #weirdfiction #timetravel #romance #spy #epistolary #novella
    • Rating: ★★★☆☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★★★
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads


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

Two agents on opposite sides of a time war exchange conspiracy, correspondence, and love across pasts and futures.

Red fights for the high-tech hive mind cyborg types, Blue for the mighty garden weaving complex time ploys. Both sides fight to bring the threads of time towards their desired future. Think multiverse, time-travel spy vs spy leaping from recognisable history to crazy, science fantasy alt-pasts and futures.

Letters from reality to fiction

"One spared life might be worth more to the other side than all the blood that stained Red’s hands today. A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet."

The war, however, is merely a backdrop for Blue and Red's game of cat and mouse as it evolves into romance. Written by two authors, each chapter alternates between Blue and Red as they head out on an op before discovering a message from their rival turned friend turned love. The epistolary style allows for some great twists and sensory experience with lush writing and cheeky references. It is also a wonderful way to handle multiple authors.

Meanwhile the narrative within hops between the twists and turns reveal their connections from the past as their stories prove to be even more interwoven than either realise (as any highly satisfying bit of time travel shenanigans should)

Things I loved...

  • That title! Meets all my Qualities of my favourite titles.
  • The premise had me instantly hooked.
  • Each chapter is like a peek into a high concept world. I loved this rapid worldbuilding style featuring worlds within worlds as we also learn more about the time war and two rival factions.
  • SPOILER-ISH The twists revealing Red and Blue's interactions in their past were nice and each built on the other to an epic conclusion racing backwards through the story.
  • The mix of epistolary (letters back and forth) and 'standard' narrative worked wonderfully.
  • Lushest of writing and worlds.

Things I didn't...

  • The romance. That is kinda an issue since it's the heart of the middle of the novella. I have this problem with some love poems too but for me it felt more obsessive than loving.
  • Maybe due to the romance not working for me, the middle felt like it dragged. Especially for such a short story.
  • When the story begin to drag, the book felt a bit more like a writing experiment than a cohesive narrative, which is a shame because overall I think the novella does a remarkable job balancing weirdness and indulgent writing with a gripping story.


“Brinks,” says Garden, with casual fondness, “are traditionally stepped back from.” “They are also fine places over which to tip one’s enemies,” says Blue. “Traditionally.”

I am so torn on this novella. On the one hand, I adore it. The myriad of worlds, the mixing metaphors, the time play. On the other, it felt overlong and oddly twisted. The beginning, filled with taunts and weird worlds, was great. The middle, dragging on with proclamations of obsessive love, was what made this novella take me longer to read. The ending however, with a final bit of time shenanigans, made up for it but I am still left unsure of how to rate it. Overall, the beginning was by far my favourite and perhaps set my expectations too high.

Read it? Without question. Love it? I cannot say.

"Climb up time’s threads into the past"

Scrapbook Concepts

  • She works her blood into the ash to make a dough, kneads that dough, rolls it flat. All around, decay proceeds. The battleships become mounds of moss. Great guns break. --> Time agents for whom time flows different
  • Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! A little joke. Trust that I have accounted for all variables of irony. Though I suppose if you’re unfamiliar with overanthologized works of the early Strand 6 nineteenth century, the joke’s on me.
  • Bored, even, with the war; your Agency’s flash and dash upthread and down, Garden’s patient planting and pruning of strands, burrowing into time’s braid.
  • a labyrinth of bones #locations
  • Soon after that, guards set upon her: eyeless giants grown by the sharp-toothed mistresses of this place. The giants’ nails are yellow, thick, and cracked, and their breath smells better than one might expect. #creatures
  • one of your viny-hivey elfworlds, profusely floral, all arcing elder trees, neural pollen, bees gathering memories from eyes and tongue, honey libraries dripping knowledge from the comb #locations #worlds
  • But those engines need lumber, so off the warriors are sent, to steal from ghosts #fragments #adventures
  • Message grown into tree over tens of years, told in the rings of the tree.
  • Atlantis sinks. Serves it right. Red hates the place. For one thing, there are so many Atlantises, always sinking, in so many strands: an island off Greece, a mid-Atlantic continent, an advanced pre-Minoan civilization on Crete, a spaceship floating north of Egypt, on and on. #locations ---> IDEA: Warp between dying Atlantises in groundhog day dungeon #dungeon
  • the Chaos Oracle #characters
  • The emperor reigns uphill, flanked by his mummified co-rulers’ temples, each served by their own high priest #characters
  • Funny how we always think of knights as fighting dragons, when in fact they work for them.
  • This is a letter of death. It will lack meaning to any but the intended recipient. Its killing words will lace through Red’s message, hidden, until the charm’s wound up. Steganography: hidden writing. Writing inside other writing.
  • Riding tube in circles under abandoned city
  • "The spiders mark her with their fangs, which is a dangerous way to give directions. But though the knowledge burns through her veins, the woman Red’s become does not die." #creatures
  • Pollen thickens the air with wisdom. To walk is to swim, and so she swims, upthread along the taproot that is this grove, into a past Garden has warded round with walls and thorns to guard the fertile dirt where her most perfect agents grow. Seeds planted, roots combing through time. #locations