This is How You Lose the Time War
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
July 16, 2019
In Amal El-Mohtar’s and Max Gladstone’s upcoming novella, they answer the age-old question, what happens when a climbing vine falls in love with the Industrial Revolution? What happens when an analog pocket watch falls in love with a rainforest? In This is How You Lose the Time War, the forces of Garden and The Agency are pitted against each other throughout time and the multiverse, struggling for ascendancy in every strand of the “time braid.” Their agents climb up and down and in and out of worlds and possible futures for them, and two of those agents, diametrically opposed in theory, illicitly and inevitably fall in love with each other.
Red, a creation of The Agency, works her gory violence on its behalf, striving for the advancement of futures in which things run like clockwork. Blue, a creation of Garden, also supremely violent, seems to have a soft spot for the humanities as she urges natural growth to cultivate a future in which Garden is ascendant. When Red and Blue begin a correspondence with each other, it spans all time and many worlds. At first, they taunt each other, but it’s only a matter of time (I’m so sorry for that and for the earlier “cultivate” pun; I swear to you they are unavoidable) before their appreciation of each other’s competence and wit turns into blatant attraction and then ultimately love.
This novella is short but extremely dense, both conceptually in terms of world-creation and stylistically with layered wordplay. The tone is unrelentingly intense, even when the book is at its most punning and inventive. At one point, for instance, a letter can only be read after a seal is killed, because the letter writer has just learned about the practice of “sealing” letters. It’s clever, yes, but that seal’s blood is part of the narrative.
I believe in Red and Blue’s intense longing for each other, and how it grew through their letter exchange, but I wouldn’t let either of them house sit for me. They think of each other intensely, longingly, each while covered with the entrails of those who got in their way, or in the way of their bosses. What I’m saying is that the main characters are not nice people. They aren’t people. They might not even be “characters,” exactly; perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as entities or forces. But I’m still rooting for them. I hope their love story works out.
I won’t reveal the ending here, but I will note that the plot is intricately and satisfyingly composed. The conceit of the “time braid” works throughout to present multiple strands of possibility which come together to form a whole stronger and more beautiful than the sum of its parts. A braid would be an apt metaphor for the way El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s collaboration seems to have worked on this book, as well. El-Mohtar has won several major awards for her poetry and short fiction; she is also known for her bus oracle Tweets, her review writing and speeches. I knew Max Gladstone’s writing, on the other hand, primarily from The Craft Sequence, a series many novels long, which presents action and intrigue as it deeply explores an invented fantastic world. As Amal El-Mohtar says in a joint interview for Clarksworld, “We knew we were coming into this project with very different styles and aptitudes, and chose letter writing to make a virtue of those differences. So we divided by character: One of us would write the letter, and the other would write the situation in which the letter was received.” Their seemingly disparate authorial strengths work together well in This Is How You Lose the Time War, and one can only imagine the extreme satisfaction they must have felt at its conclusion.
You should hurry to read the book as soon as it is available, so that when you watch the television adaptation (which has already been optioned) you can have that pleasant time-travelling feeling yourself.