by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
“It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction.”
The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends?
The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. Between the exchanges lurks the Seeker, a mysterious figure that seems to be tracking Red and Blue’s correspondence, yet not betraying it to either the Commandant or Garden. They work opposite sides of the same missions, and spend other years never crossing paths, but always there is another letter, another conflict, another battle to be won or lost. Both sides are beautifully written—Red by Max Gladstone, and Blue by Amal El-Mohtar—so that while it was a relatively short read, I spent quite a lot of time on it, just luxuriating in the distinct voices and the beautiful prose.
This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either side being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. There are relatively few other significant characters, though both agents come face to face with the heads of their respective factions at critical junctures. They both work largely alone, and while they may embed themselves in a single strand of history for a while, it inevitably comes time to move on to the next mission. They become the singular most consistent point in one another’s lives, even as they never interact directly, always keeping their distance, ever mindful of being watched by their respective commanders.
The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Both Red and Blue have unique traits that make them especially good agents, but also set them slightly apart from their fellows. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. While they are naturally competitive, their romance slowly wins out over rivalry until they are forced into a final confrontation. The ending is hopeful, but as loosely defined as the time war itself, and the worlds of Agency and Garden, leaving the reader free to imagine what they will.