Review – This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Reviewed by Srijani Ganguly

As the title seems to suggest, there are plenty of battles in Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s ‘This Is How You Lose the Time War’. Each side is engrossed in a continuous game of one-upmanship, turning and twisting the events of the past and the future to suit their objective. To do so, they infiltrate the lives of people, both historical and imaginary, in this world and the ones beyond: strange, alternative realities and unknown, alien societies. And yet, it’s not the hate between the two sides, but love—which blossoms between two warrior-spies who should be nothing but enemies—that drives the novella forward.

At its core, the conflict between the two factions is the one between science and nature. Agency, which conforms to the former, is governed by technology, and Garden, the latter, is bound together by a more organic leadership. And yes, their societies are on the opposite sides of the spectrum, both clans’ time-travelling, multiple universe-hopping agents have powers to shape-shift not only themselves, but even the world around them. They’re not immune to injury, but they are all-powerful superheroes in essence.  

The two such superheroes at the ‘This Is How You Lose the Time War’ are Red, a spy from the Agency, and Blue, who belongs to Garden. Red has just finished her mission, and is quite overjoyed at having done so, when she realises she has actually been sabotaged. That’s when she sees that first letter from Blue. Inside is a taunt, a veiled threat, an invitation to indulge in a little contest of their own to see who can emerge victorious in their little war. But as Red sabotages Blue in turn, leaving a letter for her to read, too, and Blue steps it up with further machinations against Red, the contents of their epistolary rivalry evolve into flirtations and genuine inquisitiveness about the other’s life, and end with declarations of love and despair at belonging to two clashing factions.

There is a lot of wordplay involved in their letters—Blue and Red coming up with the most inventive names to address each other with. They aren’t ordinary nicknames but, as pointed out in their own epistolary revelations, well thought-out sobriquets meant to reference their adversary’s colour-coded name. Beyond the names too, there are wonderful puns and gentle teasings that add character to each progressive letter. One specific tongue-twister, when one of them is a part of Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde, is awfully brilliant. 

These letters take many forms—seeds, lava, tea leaves, or just plain paper—and so, there are many ways to read them, too. But even as they think of ways to create such epistles, they realise there are shadows lurking near them. Someone from the Garden or the Agency, they think, knows about their illicit affair. 

Are they found out? Do they have a happy ending? And do they ever meet each other face to face? That is a matter that’s only disclosed in the last few chapters.

And yet, to be honest, the ending of the novella doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it brings a resolution to the plot. It puts an end, of sorts, to Red and Blue’s dicey letter exchanges. But the true hero of ‘This Is How You Lose the Time War’ is its language, which is poetic and beautiful. It makes sense, since one-half (Amal el-Mohtar) of the author duo is a full-fledged poet. 

There have been quite a few time-travelling love affairs, that’s true, but none, perhaps, so lyrical as this one.

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