Imagine that your family has always had a generations-long feud with another family. Now, imagine that you have been raised to particularly hate a member of that family who is your age — the two of you have always competed academically and athletically, but have never actually spoken. But then one day, you do, and everything changes. You’re instantly attracted to each other, but are unable to speak on the phone or meet up in-person — the relationship is forbidden and must be kept secret. The two of you are left getting to know one another exclusively via snail mail.
Now, imagine these angsty letter-writing fantasies playing out during an intergalactic, transdimensional time war between two lethal women fighting for different, warring factions.
This is the best way I can think to describe Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s strange, striking epistolary novel THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR.
It’s in your best interest to go into this reading experience knowing as little about the story as possible (this review will be spoiler-free), so here’s all you need to know: Red is an elite operative for the Agency, the highly technological half of the book’s time war; Blue is her chief rival and opposite number for the organic Garden, the faction that comprises the other half of the conflict. What are they fighting over? Control of the future.
One day, when Red and Blue are sent to the same battlefield, Blue leaves Red a letter that is essentially a taunt; Red, not one to be shown up, responds. And thus begins a correspondence between two enemies amidst a war, in which their letters communicate their bluster, intelligence, curiosity, desires, fears, and eventually, their love.
THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR is a quick read; by this, I’m referring to both its length and pace. The book is only 208 pages, and the story travels at breakneck speed, taking us along Red and Blue’s journeys as they jump from one strand of time to another. (You might find the first 50-or-so pages disorienting, as I did, but don’t worry — you’ll fall into the rhythym of the book before you know it.) Despite this, the world El-Mohtar and Gladstone manage to establish is impossibly expansive; they manage to convey the absolute enormity of a world in which you’re not bound by the laws of time and space. Our characters can visit any number of dimensions and witness, and rewrite, any historical event they please. In the face of this largeness, it’s easy to imagine how a person could feel unmoored and rootless. It’s easy to imagine how a person could get lonely.
And it’s easy to imagine why Red and Blue, both of whom are fiercely competitive and competent, the best of their respective factions, would be intrigued by each other. They’re faster, braver, stronger, and cleverer than anyone they know aside from each other; these are things they share. However, there’s so much they don’t know about each other or the different worlds they come from — Red doesn’t know how the Garden’s hive-mind works, and Blue has questions about the Agency’s technology. While their letters are initially as competitive as their battles and missions have always been, curiosity inevitably seeps through. Although they understand that they’re taking a risk (of discovery, of betrayal) with every letter they send and every confession they make, it’s as if they can’t stop. They discover that they share similar interests and begin sending each other book recommendations. They ask each other about their lives and worlds. They discuss hunger, desire, longing. They disguise their letters into surprises in the hopes that they’ll delight the other or make them laugh. They fall in love.
Red and Blue’s voices and writing styles are so distinct that I felt the need to look into how El-Mohtar and Gladstone went about creating their narratives. In an interview they did for Clarkesworld Magazine, they shared that Gladstone entirely wrote Red’s character, while El-Mohtar wrote Blue’s. The two wrote THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR by mimicking their characters’ communication; El-Mohtar said, “One of us would write the letter, and the other would write the situation in which the letter was received. Then we’d swap laptops, read what we’d written, exclaim in delight, and move on to the next part.”
Gladstone shared, “Dividing the war like that made the writing process mimic the movement of our characters in a way that felt electric. As Red and Blue orbited one another in tighter and tighter circles, so did our writing.”
“Electric” is the perfect word to describe the tension and energy of Red and Blue’s letters. They’re as intense in their writing as they are during their assignments, and their attraction to each other feels like an electric current that runs through the pages. But I truly fell in love with the both of them and their relationship when the intensity of their correspondence gave way to softness; when they made the difficult, terrifying decision to be vulnerable and honest about their feelings. To everyone else, they’re ferocious, unstoppable, and uncorruptible; with each other, they’re gentle, open, and exposed — with each other, they’re safe. “I feel almost invincible in our battles’ wake: a kind of Achilles, fleet footed and light of touch. Only in this nonexistent place our letters weave do I feel weak. How I love to have no armor here.”
It’s incredible to see this sense of trust and safety develop because Red and Blue are still technically enemies — they know how easily one could betray the other, and they can imagine the terrifying consequences they would face if they were caught. They know that some of the information they tell each other is sensitive and could be used against them. But even amidst their fear and suspicion and paranoia, they actively choose to trust each other and believe in one another. With each other, they find shelter, as well as the possibility that there could be more to their lives than the time war.
I adore that this book is a work of queer sci-fi in which it doesn’t really matter that its characters are gay — Red and Blue are enemies who both happen to be women and fall in love with each other. Their love is forbidden and dangerous because they’re on opposite sides of a war, not because it’s taboo to be a woman who loves a woman. There aren’t any subplots with futuristic homophobia or existential crises over sexuality; Red and Blue’s sexual identities are completely irrelevant to the threats they face. I found this incredibly refreshing and wish this reprieve from homophobia was more common in literature, especially within the fantasy and science fiction genres. (Like, you’re telling me that George R. R. Martin can create dragons and ice zombies but cannot fathom a universe in which homophobia doesn’t exist???? Make it make sense.)
It was also refreshing to see that El-Mohtar and Gladstone managed to wrap up THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR’s central conflict without falling into any of the stereotypical tropes that tend to plague any form of media with lesbian characters. The two managed to find a conclusion to this complicated, surprising novel without being disappointing or overtly-generous — a very difficult balance to master, but one that they struck with precision.
“I sought loneliness when I was young. You’ve seen me there: on my promontory, patient and unaware. But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.”
We might not all be futuristic beings fighting in a war that traverses time and space, but isn’t this the apex of human longing? I want to be alone together. I want to be a context for you, and you for me. Who doesn’t wish for this sense of being known, this safety and understanding? It’s exactly this desire that El-Mohtar and Gladstone captured so well.