Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of a war conducted across time itself. They are perfect spies, virtuoso killers, artists when it comes to manipulating timelines. Each of them has the sole purpose of ensuring their side wins.
And then they fall in love.
The novella This is How You Lose the Time War is a collaboration between Max Gladstone, author of the Craft Sequence among other things, and Amal El-Mohtar, best-known for her short fiction and poetry (and a personal fave of mine). The story showcases the best of both authors: El-Mohtar’s lush prose and referential richness and Gladstone’s facility with vivid characterisation.
And my goodness, it’s twisty and odd in all the right ways. This is How You Lose the Time War is a gorgeous fantasia in time, as we chase Red and Blue through a colourful myriad of possible worlds.
This story is all about the anachronisms. Except that of course nothing in this story is technically an anachronism, because time travel.
It’s precisely because time travel that this story feels like all of time—all of what ever was and what ever could be—smashing into one another all at once. Red and Blue spend lifetimes on fantastical worlds, fulfilling improbable quests, only to find a letter from the other, written and encoded in the most far-fetched way, talking about the etiquette of correspondence in the 19th century, about wax seals (and dear god, that amazingly terribad joke…), and about Chatterton.
This is How You Lose the Time War is the most perfect epistolary—that is, a story told through correspondence—I’ve ever read. While there is material outside them, the letters between Red and Blue themselves are the showpieces of this book. They are rampant with imagery and with metaphor, a sweetly intoxicating flirtation that grows into deep and passionate love between the two main characters.
Of course Red and Blue are Romeo and Juliet. Not only in the sense that they belong to opposing sides of a war, but also that they live alongside death, dance with it, circle closer and closer to it with every risk they take to communicate with one another.
An agonisingly slow burn
So if you enjoy a slow burn, well, friend, have I got a book for you. The romance between Red and Blue is like nothing more than a game of chess. They make their assay, take their risks, and they wait for the other to move. Because of the war, and their opposing sides, even when Red and Blue can admit they’ve fallen for one another, they still have miles to go.
This novella is compulsive reading. Desperately rooting for these two crazy kids to make it absolutely absorbed me. It’s heartachingly beautiful. I never wanted to put it down. It’s everything I wanted it to be.
This is How You Lose the Time War is out now from Jo Fletcher Books. You can buy it from Jo Fletcher Books, from your local independent bookshop, or ask about it at your local library.