This is How You Lose the Time War is by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I would have put their names in the title, but it was already comically long, perhaps cosmically long, and the book was very short.
My TL;DR review: I give it a 9 out of 10, and I’m only detracting a point because it’s short and I wanted more. Buy this and put it in your brain immediately.
This is the fourth of my reviews, and I saved the best for last. In fact, I’ll give you the order in which you should read the books I’ve reviewed:
- This is How You Lose the Time War
- Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard
- The Big Sheep
Honestly, you should probably read the next Barsk book before reading The Big Sheep. The 7/10 I gave it might have been too generous.
Let’s get to the actual review.
I enjoyed Time War so much that I listened to it all in one day. I started it in the morning on my way to work. It hooked me and stayed in my thoughts all day. I continued listening on the way home, then went straight to my garage, hooked my phone to the big speakers, and finished it.
The audio book is only 4 hours long, so it wasn’t difficult to consume it this way. But still… it satisfied me, and I wish I’d read it sooner.
I love the form of the story. It alternates between regular prose and epistolary, the adversaries referred to as Red and Blue writing to each other as they move through time, working to ensure that one timeline wins over the other. I think all that information is on the cover, so none of that should be a spoiler.
The prose is rich and beautiful. The character voices are clear and compelling. El-Mohtar and Gladstone worked to create a pitch-perfect, tight story. Emotionally satisfying and never boring. I highly recommend you read it.
SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT
My spoilers will be pretty light, but they’re still spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, go do so and come back. I’d love to talk with you about this story.
Here we go…
I don’t think I have any real nitpicks. From the title alone, I knew time travel would be involved, so I knew that the final twist at the end would need to be some kind of causal or recursive play on the characters. That being said, even though the authors telegraphed it, they masked the twist with Red’s apparent death. They did this so well that I wondered if they were going full Romeo and Juliet.
The authors knew Time War bore a resemblance with Romeo and Juliet so they smartly hung a lantern on it. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, I believed the romance between Red and Blue. It happened organically and naturally over the course the novel, with each character giving and taking, crawling under the skin and into the heart of their rival.
Much of the beauty of the story is found within the small details. The description of a cup of tea. The unwinding of a note passed from one character to the other through the imperfections in the rings of a tree. The world building could be described as light, in that not a lot of time is spent explaining how the time travel works or what the ramifications of their time alterations look like.
In terms of the war, we’re told what the stakes are without really seeing them or even feeling them. Honestly, the war just becomes backdrop and window dressing. The real stakes are in the characters themselves, in how they’ll make their relationship work, or if they’ll make it work at all. From that perspective, the stakes are small, but because we fall in love with both characters, that doesn’t matter. I was invested in Red and Blue, so those were the stakes I cared about.
It’s an almost perfect little story that makes the absolute most of the form. El-Mohtar and Gladstone wrote something really special, and I expect to see it win awards.