Book review: “This Is How You Lose the Time War”

This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading This Is How You Lose the Time War began simply enough–a catchy title, an interesting premise, talented authors. I picked it up on a whim, not knowing much more than that and not entirely certain what to expect. It turned out to be one of those books that blindsides you, taking hold and drawing you in until there are simply no more pages left to read.

I barely made it into the first chapter before I began to realize what I was truly in for.

“In the moment before the world comes apart, she reads it again.”

This book is a story of lives and letters, of a war that spans existence and of two individuals caught up in the web of something so much larger than themselves. It is science-fiction and romance, war story and drama. If it is not too dramatic of a phrase, the book could be described as achingly beautiful–a story rich in humanity, framed through two voices who cannot quite be called human.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone paint universes in simple strokes across these pages. The world of the story is all of space and time, and they convey the scope of an ongoing time war with clarity–but also such simplicity so as never to detract from the story at its center. The brevity of the larger setting only serves to make the details we see even richer–food, art, wordplay, the sweep of history and the nature of two civilizations matched in bloody conflict–especially as those details are passed through the eyes of two characters who could not be more different. Yet the two leads are also so alike in circumstance and fortune that they cannot help but spot each other across the expanse of all that separates them and sets them at odds, each with the other.

It is indeed a rich story. Humanity, philosophy, social commentary, the natures of connection and existence–all of these are part of the narrative but they never feel as though they are layered atop the existing story. They never feel forced there for a message or even simply for show. Rather, these things are part of the fundamental fabric of the conflict which plays out across the pages of the novel. Time and again, the authors offer a thought, a phrase, that is so striking it requires you to pause, breathe it in, and linger over it as something that is both entirely new, and an idea that you perhaps have known all along.

I will not linger simply over the language of this novel. Beyond that, the authors have crafted a dramatic story of chaos and control, of forces that fight to shape the vary fabric of existence to their own ends. As soldiers follow orders, plots are enacted, and loyalties are tested in the wake of change and revelation–two soldiers locked into an ongoing struggle must determine for themselves what they want–how they will seek to shape their own place in the future.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone weave story threads like the threads of time that compose the novel’s worlds. Elements separate and combine, circle back and overlap in ways that are humorous and tragic, shocking and delightful, violent and full of possibility. If it isn’t already clear, This Is How You Lose the Time War is the sort of book that is best experienced for oneself. It is short, but there is power buried within every page. It is the sort of book I want to read again, not only to enjoy it all afresh–but also because I am certain there is more still to discover in a narrative which begins so simply that its difficult to know exactly what is coming next.

“There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my small joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the flies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for five years, you could return never–and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.”

I can’t put into words everything I feel about this book, so I’ll end simply–go read it. It’s quite the story.

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