I’m not usually one for romances (feelings are just so…touchy-feely) but I am one for science fiction and games of cat and mouse. This is How You Lose the Time War has both—and manages to write about time travel in a way that didn’t create massive plot holes or leave the reader hopelessly confused.
Here is what you need to know about This is How You Lose the Time War: There is a war. On one side is the Agency, a techy sort of world; on the other is the Garden, a shared consciousness of organic matter. Both employ liberal amounts of time travel to make sure their world is the one that ends up on top in the end of all things. Red, of the Agency, brushes her hands off at the end of a mission gone not-quite-right and finds a note from Blue, an agent from the Garden. Red knows she should simply ignore the note but instead she reads it…and then leaves one of her own for Blue. In the utmost demonstration of enemies to lovers, Red and Blue poke at the boundaries of the code of war, teasing each other and threatening to backstab or poison each other as they foil plans—and find more in common than they thought.
This is How You Lose the Time War is slim—just shy of 200 pages—and flips quickly between Red and Blue. I read it in a single sitting, but there’s a secondary element of mystery that made me go back and read through parts of it again. Reading it again for that purpose and realizing how well-constructed the subplot truly is was definitely rewarding. Less rewarding was going back and rereading in an attempt to keep track of battles and parts of the war because the text is a bit dense in some places. I found myself relying more on the back-cover blurb than the text itself, which isn’t necessarily bad but I feel like if I had tried that to a professor I would have gotten an earful. To be fair, This is How You Lose the Time War is a novella, not a novel, and the war itself doesn’t matter as much as the machinations between Red and Blue do, but I think I would have happily read more pages if it had all been a bit more clear the first time through.
But those are quibbles. The titular war of This is How You Lose the Time War is largely window dressing and plot entanglement to the romance brewing beneath. There are no steamy scenes where breath catches and hands tremble. Well, there are scenes in which breath catches and hands tremble, so I guess it’s more accurate to say there are no steamy scenes in which both people’s breath catches and hands tremble. No clothes are removed in the turn to love; far more intimate than physical nakedness is the emotional vulnerability they gradually allow one another. And far more romantic than sweeping declarations of love or grand gestures are the ways Red and Blue find to rescue this member of the enemy camp.
I’m not usually one for romances and This is How You Lose the Time War didn’t exactly show me the error of my ways, but I was entertained by this book. I liked the language and I liked imagining these almost-anonymous characters changing their fundamental beings through the unstoppable forces of mutual trust, of empathy—of love. Writing about time travel is hard but the tag-team duo of Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone pulled it off. The title of This is How You Lose the Time War is misleading; there are no losers here.