This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

I’m rating this book quite highly even as I found myself oddly detached from it, so I’m chalking this down to a me-problem and not to any fault of the book itself. Okay, maybe there’s a pacing issue once we discover who the seeker is: I get that the authors didn’t want to retread stuff, but you’d think at least the scene where she felt obliged to comfort Red would’ve dwelt a little more on how she was feeling in the moment. Ha, so I guess maybe it is partly the fault of the book.

Anyhoo, it’s a charming idea: two elite soldiers on either side of a war to control the past such that it will lead to their preferred present end up being covert pen pals who fall in love. Red is an Agent for a technophilic cyberfuture, sorta like the Matrix but utopian. Blue works for the Garden, an organic hivemind a la Swamp Thing which can also send its proxies back through time and across the strands and braids of reality, just as Red and her fellow agents can. Don’t feel bad if you read the book and don’t exactly understand what the difference is between the two sides, as I only really figured it out after reading the explanatory note at the end. Oh, jeez, maybe my muted enjoyment really was the book’s fault.

What starts as a battlefield boast turns into a meaningful correspondence between two lonely people who eventually fall in love and decide they’ll go to any lengths to be together. It’s a bit Romeo & Juliet, only better, with more mature protagonists who make smarter choices. I enjoyed reading the desire that burned through the pages of the letters they sent each other, even as I spent way too much time feeling that the authors were being deliberately vague about way too much of the background stuff (see: having to read the extra material for clarity above.) I love it when authors trust their readers to be intelligent enough to catch on without needing lengthy info dumps, but this book felt like I was struggling to catch on to a series of in-jokes and personal references, not helped by the many pop culture references that I did get, which just wound up feeling weirdly gratuitous as a result. It was like being at a party where the cool kids were talking to each other rapid fire about their personal interests, which is fine if you’re part of their inner circle but not very entertaining to anyone else. I’d rather go strike up a conversation with someone who’s actually interested in talking rather than showing off.

Leaving my extended metaphor to return to this novella, however, I’m thinking it needed to be longer, to be explored more, to be less breathlessly romantic and more descriptive of the myriad settings it found itself in. This Is How You Lose The Time War has plenty of charm and tons of brilliant ideas, but it’s also weirdly underwritten for having two acclaimed authors.

This was the last of my reads for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and I’ll definitely be voting for the novella at this link.

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