Review: This Is How You Lose The Time War

This is How you Lose the Time War is, at its essence, a love letter. Literally – it’s based around correspondence shared between two opposing Time War agents, which becomes more than either intended. It is a shared endeavour by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Redstone, who wrote the perspectives of Blue and Red, respectively. This 200 page queer science fiction novella from Jo Fletcher Books has won a Nebula, a Hugo, a Shirley Jackson, and many other prestigious awards. But never mind all that. Here’s my opinion on it.

Featured: A square image of This Is How You Lose The Time War surrounded by blue and red things because, despite reshoots, I still forgot to take even one landscape photo.

First things first, I loved the letter style. I found it a wonderful medium, one which, to my uneducated eyes, is fairly unique in the fantasy scene. I’m sure it’s not unique in romance, but I have absolutely no evidence to back that up.

The world building is deliberately vague, poetic – even the tech-driven Agency Red works for talks about braids, strands, moving upstream and downstream. This reflects the way the narrative is infused with lyrical richness, particularly when Blue is writing. Although portions happen in cities, desolate battlefields, and war camps, there is a melody to the description that keeps it quite visceral – sensual. This contrasts with the invisible narrator who watches as these two agents wage war against each other.

P.S. I write to you in stings, Red, but this is me, the truth of me, as I do so: broken open by the act, in the palm of your hand, dying.

Now, some of the readers will know that I am definitely a dialogue-over-description kind of person. Give me a witty conversation over a poetic rendering of a box tortoise any day. But here the description is elevated because every detailed flower bud, every bee sting, every drop of rosehip tea is laced with meaning (and sometimes more) – because the letters are one big dialogue between our two protagonists. I may have to pick up some more epistolary novels, because this really worked for me.  I rushed through the second half of the book as I got drawn in, and suspect it would benefit from a more leisurely read.

Two hands, one blue, one red, reach out to each other. The hands are word clouds featuring words such as 'connect', 'reach out' and 'unite'.

The protagonists are both female, insomuch as they use female pronouns, but gender matters little here: Red’s boss, Covenant,  also uses she/her, but she has been an ethereal being for so long she’s forgotten how to use a body. Blue’s boss, Garden, embodies a more traditional idea of femininity – Mother Earth etc – but her shears are just as sharp as her blossoms are fragrant. One of, or possibly both protagonists take the role of men at some point, in their work on the ever-raging Time War. The physicality doesn’t particularly matter. What matters is that, whoever Blue and Red are, they are the same.

When did it happen? Or has it always happened? Like your victory, love spreads back through time. It claims our earliest association, our battles and losses.

The novella’s length is a strength – there was a certain mid-point where I couldn’t help thinking ‘Yes, I know you’re in love, I know you both do horrendous things in pursuit of the Time War, can we move it along, please?’ Thankfully, the plot remembered its way about two pages after that.

An eight-spotted red ladybird on a blue cornflower in a field.

I didn’t necessarily love the book – the plot is quite simple and visible from the outset, which is why I don’t mind telling you all that – gasp – they fall in love. Nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who prefers a little more lyricism in their life. Chekov does wave a couple of pistols about with an awful lot of enthusiasm – but this book is very much an emotional and sensual experience, so you end up not minding the inevitable gunfire.

💌 💌 💌
A gorgeous, lyrical love letter told across a time war.

But is it gay?
Well, the love letter is between queer two women, so…

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