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This is How You Lose the Time War

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Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There's still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.

209 pages, Kindle Edition

First published July 16, 2019

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Amal El-Mohtar

100 books2,510 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 32,217 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews156k followers
February 6, 2023
This Is How You Lose the Time War does not make it easy for any reviewer to describe the experience of reading it. As soon as you start to put words in, you hit a wall. How does one explain the action of the novel without surrendering any spoilers?

I can tell you that the first strand running through this loosely-braided narrative comes in the form of a letter. That the first of its kind is only pretend, an instant of self-indulgence, but that it began a circling of time for Red, the past cutting into the present like a whetted blade. Then comes the second letter, which is an abyss daring Red to fall inside despite the sense that she and Blue are all digging themselves deeper than ever before. By the third letter, Red feels that they are cutting their own throats by all of this.

Blue and Red, our protagonists, are two time traveling spies from rival factions in a time-war-ravaged world, who make contact and find love—and something that frightens them, too—across a void too profound to bridge with anything other than words. The two women are more real to each other than reflections in a mirror. They had borne witness to too many battles waged against time (and each other), but this time too many forces are ready to make siege weapons of their letters. Yet, in the sheer shimmering (im)possibility of every word, they can almost pretend they can get away with it.

And we’ll run again, the two of us, upthread and down, firefighter and fire starter, two predators only sated by each other’s words.

This novel is, for lack of a better term, a lot—but in a good way. This Is How You Lose the Time War is a book of sustained beauty and lyricism that also works as a fractured mosaic of a novel—told in swift, brutal strokes, all wound into vertiginous loops of prose. It is not what anyone would describe as a light read by any stretch. Rather, it is the kind of novel that delights in confusing, wrong-footing, and maddening its reader. The kind of novel that demands not only you pay attention, but that you actively participate. If you're here, This Is How You Lose the Time War seems to say, you have to be here: attentive, wide-eyed, and alert.

El-Mohtar and Maxwell, our author duo, are undeniably some of the greatest writers writing today, and in This Is How You Lose the Time War, they are in full command of their narrative gifts. Together their language soars as they write of desire, longing, fear, survival and freedom. The result is prose that reads like an intricate dance, a dialogic push-and-pull as effortless and compelling as the protagonists' correspondence. There’s clearly a lot of trust here between the two authors, and the novel is all the better for it.

That said, those gifts can sometimes double as obstacles. As beautiful as the prose is, This Is How You Lose the Time War is a novel that can feel both exhilarating and exhausting, sometimes simultaneously. There are moments when the lyricism feels labored, the sentences so bedecked with metaphors and analogies that one might crave a little more restraint. Inside the long economy of a novel, I think too much prose (no matter how exquisite) can occasionally hamper the flow of the narrative, and at times, it is the case with This Is How You Lose the Time War.

But one quickly learns that the best way to read This Is How You Lose the Time War is in small merciful doses, lingering more over each sentence, extrapolating meaning from tidbits of language, and slowly stitching the errant pieces into a whole. Ultimately, this becomes the most rewarding experience of reading This Is How You Lose the Time War: that this is a novel that not only teaches you how to read it, but how to relax into the chaos of it all and enjoy it too. I’m already looking forward to reading it again.

Dearest, deepest Blue—
At the end as at the start, and through all the in-betweens, I love you.
Profile Image for emma.
1,865 reviews54.3k followers
August 31, 2023
I do not know how to write five star reviews.

Give me a book I hate and I’ll write a full-on thesis on it. Prime example: Just yesterday I spent one human hour on a seven-page one star rant review. And honestly? Time well spent.

But when it comes to something I truly love? I’m illiterate. Can’t read. Can’t write. Call me Jared, 19. What am I doing on this book site? Couldn’t tell you.

I WANT to scream about this from the rooftops. I want each and every one of you to read it, because it is utterly one of a kind and it’s gripping from page one and the characters are fantastic and the writing is witty and beautiful and it is…

I tried to trick myself into stating all the ways in which it is amazing, but as always I got overwhelmed and ran out of words to describe it. (The one scenario in known human existence that can get me to shut up for even one second.)

Anytime I write a five star review, I struggle to render perfection onto the page, and I just make myself want to reread.

Damn...I really, really want to reread.

Bottom line: Don’t take my insufficient words for it!!! But read this book immediately.

timely thoughts

me 🤝 bigolas dickolas
resorting to unusual tactics to get people to read this book

life update

i let a man i was seeing borrow my copy of this and then i ghosted the man and then i moved across the country and now i don't have the book and hardcover copies are so expensive.

in conclusion: i'm retiring from dating

rereading updates

shock of shocks: this book i reread 3 months after reading it for the first time is on my 2020 favorites list.

the list in question: https://emmareadstoomuch.wordpress.co...


treating myself to some pure bliss & buddy rereading with lily


who the hell told this book it was allowed to end?

review to come / 5 stars

currently-reading updates

how far into this book were you when you realized it was unlike anything you'd ever read or would read, and also you were in love with it?

for me it was page 14.

tbr review

i'm a simple girl. i hear sapphic time travel, i add to my tbr
Profile Image for Philip.
512 reviews682 followers
June 16, 2020
2ish stars.

What it comes down to is that I'm simply not enough of a romantic to enjoy this book. The appeal lies squarely in the flowery language written in love poems between two post-human women on opposite sides of a time travel war. I just happen to find love poetry more pretentious and mawkish than amorous or emotive. (Can it even really be considered romantic when one character addresses the other as "Dearest Blue-da-ba-dee?")

The rest of the book (characters, setting, plot) is left intentionally indistinct and much of it is epistolary in format, so I was left feeling detached and dispassionate. Not enough is described about the characters to identify with them or care much about them outside the context of their forbidden romance. Not enough of the world is described to care much about what's going on with the war itself. As the authors write, “Some things are more important than winning.” When you don't care much about who wins or loses anyway, the point becomes moot.

Posted in Mr. Philip's Library
Profile Image for Cindy.
407 reviews116k followers
June 24, 2020
This is the most fun I’ve had reading this writing style in a while! It’s such a creative, abstract, lyrical, and well-written love story that not only did I re-listen to each chapter twice on audiobook, but I also ended up borrowing the ebook just so that I could digest the writing via my eyeballs. There were many sensory experiences and beautifully crafted letters. The cat-and-mouse game between the two female protagonists is fun to read and the intimacy that builds up between them just by the letters alone is a great ride. It is not a perfect book and sometimes it can feel repetitive or filler-like due to the repeated format, but I am more so impressed by the creativity of layering all these different time periods and how the writers clearly had fun putting this together, including the twist at the end.
Profile Image for Kat.
270 reviews80k followers
August 25, 2020
this book has some truly gorgeous words and the yearning between red and blue is on point, but sci fi and my brain are like oil and water & i was ✨confusion✨ for most of the story
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
962 reviews6,806 followers
May 15, 2023
I want to be a context for you, and you for me.

There is something uniquely affecting when love is painted against the backdrop of the limitlessness of space and time. The effect has been done many times over but nothing can prepare you for the extraordinary beauty in which This is How You Lose the Time War allows you to experience love stretching out and weaving across time and dimensions to examine just how infinite it can possibly be. A spark of emotion that shines through galaxies reduced to dust, the countless rises and falls of mortal empires, the lifespans of all human feats and follies. Co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, each writing one of the two protagonists, the novel is a soaring epistalatory sapphic romance between two rival time-traveling agents in a war between their respective societies to control and rewrite the multiverse in order to eradicate the other. Spawn by a private battlefield provocation, the two agents become caught in a maelstrom of self-discovery and romance corresponding by letters as they chase each other across time and space in a playful and imaginative novel so searingly beautiful the cosmos can barely contain it.

These two authors have created something charmingly original in Time War, enhanced by the distinct dueling voices of the authors as their prose communicates and responds to each other along with their characters. Many of these letters, particularly in the novel’s latter half, blossom into pure ethereal poetry. On occasion it dips into purple prose, as one letter admits, however, what a clever sentiment for a profession of love between characters named Red and Blue to evolve into purple. The writing remains crisp, rotating between short narration and the correspondence between the two, allowing the narrative to progress as strongly on wings of emotion as it does the chain of events. What transpires is often intentionally vague as no time is wasted on much exposition or explanation, but fully immerses you in a world you won’t quite grasp or understand. It’s as if this gorgeous landscape of the multiverse were simply a blur as you are focused on the interaction between Red and Blue, much the way the world around you fades from focus in the first moments of love.

Ultimately, any attempt at concreteness in a universe in a constant state of flux and revision would be beside the point, and the vagueness reflects that. It is only though the shared connection between Red and Blue that we can find a stable focal point as they pass through a kaleidoscope of time. Much like the way the pair gives context to one another, our only context is through them as well. They are each other’s only tether to stability in an unstable reality.

When did it happen? Or has it always happened? Like your victory, love spreads back through time.

Entire multi-dimensions are shifted, burned or woven together on the battlefield of time between Garden, an organic and collectivist society from which Blue has grown, and Agency, a post-singularity mechanical society that created Red. They are locked in an eternal time-war of which the specifics and origins of are rarely addressed and even then are quite vague. The novel makes reference to Romeo and Juliet in narrative and thematically (the play, it is said, has different endings in each strand of time), and shares it’s notion of a long-standing feud where all existing players have forgotten why but continue to play it out to the point of extreme violence. What they are doing exactly is a bit elusive but strands are altered by, say, helping a city build a port or ensuring a mathematical formula survives the destruction of Atlantis: little things that add up over centuries to create wholly different versions of reality that are fought over.
In the war they wage through time, what lasting advantage comes from murdering ghosts, who, with a slight shift of threads, will return to life or live different lives that never bright them to the executioner’s blade?...No death sticks but the one that matters.

What a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I,’ Blue writes to Red early on, ‘An action and an equal and opposite reaction.’ The two women--they identify as she/her and can take on human form though you’d be hard pressed to form a definite image of what they look like based on the various hints--who’s designation as Red and Blue help to impress an idea as mere players in a game, are equals of one another, rivals ever, which is the initial attraction between the them. ‘They were separate, they did not speak, but each shaped the other, even as they were shaped in turn.’ What begins as a game of hunter and hunted in boasting and taunting letters quickly gives way to deep conversations about the self that makes them aware they have an agency beyond their respective Agencies and despite being weapons of war have a taste for the finer and beautiful things in life. In those moments they realize there is a hole inside them that only the other can fill. And as their love grows, they begin to wonder--partly due to the millenia of time they criss-cross during their budding attraction--if perhaps the love didn’t just arrive but had always been there. As with any sci-fi involving time travel, there is the inevitable paradox of events and free-will within a shifting reality and the two authors harness this paradox into their novel towards an exquisite and emotional end.

There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there?

Letters are structures, not events,’ Red writes to Blue, ‘Yours give me a place to live inside.’ This beautiful refuge from war they’ve found in their secret correspondence also becomes a commentary on language and communication itself. In whimsical sci-fi nature, they write in abstract languages found in reading the structure of leaves on a plant or decoding rings on a tree (just let it happen, it’s super cool), which reflects the way the tools of writing shape how we write--a topic often written upon by philosopher Jacques Derrida. Their secret letters envelope the secrecy of their relationship and dangers they face even reading letters from the enemy, which is fascinating to think of considering a digital age where communication can occur through images (entire conversations can be had with emojis and memes) or other non-alphabetic communication.

In our modern world we continue to embrace non-verbal communication that relationships can be built from, such as how with online dating many people exist only in messages to one another before meeting and form an attraction that way. It is a beautiful notion to consider how through just our words we can fall in love with the essence of another by showing an understanding, empathy and passion for the thoughts of each other (when I first met my partner we met in person only three times before she moved back to Ireland so for months we got to know each other through long late night texting and her sending me letters, so love across distance has always spoken to me pretty well). Messages written at one place in time, sent, and received in another transmitting emotions across time and space. ‘Books are letters in bottles,’ one letter reads, ‘cast into the waves of time, from one person trying to save the world to another.’ All books are love letters, if you think about it. One person sending out a message in hopes someone will understand and understand them in turn, an abstract connection that reaches even beyond the grave. There is a voyeuristic sense to this novel--reading their letters and all--but it reminds us of our primal instincts that desire connection and the fireworks of emotion that come from first contact with it. It is nearly impossible to not be swept up in their romance and feel their fears, pains, and needs standing naked and unafraid before one another, like a tree in winter unashamed of it’s gnarled limbs.

Love is what we have, against time and death, against all the powers ranged to crush us down.

There is a subtle shadow of dread cast across their saga keeping the reader keenly aware that their taboo relationship is always threatened by the larger world in which they exist. Agency traces Blue’s exploits and wishes to set a trap for her, one Red will be used to ensure the success of the mission. Betrayal exists in the peripheries of this novel at all times, especially when they begin to open up hoping this isn’t just some long con. Poison is an important theme throughout the novel, with the women taunting each other that any letter could be laced with it and choosing to read forward anyways. It reminds us of how we remove our armor and open ourselves up to pain when we choose to love. War begets death and suffering, and the two players have entered into this affair knowing the risks but plunging on ahead regardless.

I want to meet you in every place I have loved.

It is difficult to say much more without spoiling anything in this clever plotted novel. It is one that encourages an immediate reread, as clues and puzzle pieces are weaved into the novel much like the way our heroines weave space and time together for their purposes. It is an extraordinary little book that somehow manages to never feel like a gimmick despite it’s inventive and quirky nature. Time, place, love, and war all become a potent concoction for one of the most tender and vulnerable romances I’ve ever read. I could praise it all day long but, as is written in one of the cosmic letters, ‘I am the songbird running out of air, and I must breathe.


I want to be a body for you. I want to chase you, find you, I want to be eluded and teased and adored; I want to be defeated and victorious—I want you to cut me, sharpen me. I want to drink tea beside you in ten years or a thousand. Flowers grow far away on a planet they’ll call Cephalus, and these flowers bloom once a century, when the living star and its black-hole binary enter conjunction.I want to fix you a bouquet of them, gathered across eight hundred thousand years, so you can draw our whole engagement in a single breath, all the ages we’ve shaped together.
Profile Image for may ➹.
494 reviews2,062 followers
June 24, 2020
this book is very confusing because there are lines like “Dearest, deepest Blue— At the end as at the start, and through all the in-betweens, I love you” that make you think, simply, oh......

and then there’s the fact that I had no idea what the hell was going on
Profile Image for Ayman.
209 reviews84.7k followers
May 9, 2023
idk how to explain my deep aching love for this book so i’m just gonna insert quotes that made me feel something

“it is such luxury to dwell in things details—to share them with you. I want, Red— I want to give you things.”

“Words, Hurt. I can hide in words so long as I scatter them through my body; to read your letters is to gather flowers from within myself, pluck a blossom here, a fern there, arrange and rearrange them in ways to suit a sunny room”

“love, Blue”

“I want to chase you, find you, I want to be eluded and teased and adored; I want to be defeated and victorious—I want you to cut me, sharpen me. i want to drink tea beside you in ten years or a thousand”

“But when I think of you. I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.”

“i love you. love you. I love you. I’ll write it in waves. In skies. In my heart. You'll never see, but you will know. I'll be all the poets, i’ll kill them all and take each one's place in turn, and every time love's written in all the strands it will be to you.”

i want what they have ❤️💙
Profile Image for Emily .
779 reviews79 followers
January 27, 2020
Almost all my Goodread friends are raving about this. I just didn't like it. I never really understood why the characters fell in love, there's no explanation about what is really going on with the two sides and the writing style was just too... "extra" for me. It's very literary and poetic, it's all words and not much substance. It just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Jack Edwards.
Author 1 book204k followers
October 21, 2021
A book about communication (both between the characters and the two authors of the novel), as well as yearning and betrayal. Its lyrical prose is mesmerising as it drip-feeds information to the reader.

It's definitely a book of two halves, in that the first 70-ish pages don't really make any sense while you're first reading them. You really have to work through a lot of complicated sci-fi world-building to (eventually) appreciate the plot's mighty crescendo, which is very spectacular. Mixed feelings for this book which is simultaneously thrilling and exhausting.
Profile Image for TraceyL.
990 reviews133 followers
July 29, 2019
This book made me feel really dumb. I don't think it was the book's fault. The combination of high science fiction with poetic literary fiction just didn't click together in my brain. There was never a point in this book where I knew what was going on. I just finished it and have no idea what happened in it.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
431 reviews4,218 followers
August 20, 2023
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose The Time War focuses on two time travelers, Blue and Red. These two women work for agencies who want to bend time to their will. While on a mission, Red finds a message, “Burn before Reading.” This sparks a series of correspondence, hidden messages, between the two time travelers. How will this friendship between these two sworn enemies end?

Tons of people just love this book, but I couldn’t get into it. My attention kept wandering off. This review is my attempt to pinpoint what went wrong.

First, this book involves time travel, and it is underwhelming. Part of this is due to the narrator who seems to be quite detached. The death and destruction are just another day at the office. However, the detachment did not build suspense. I practiced immersion reading in this book, and even the audiobook narrators seemed very bored and detached. If I could go back, I think I would have been better served if I read this book without the audiobook.

Second, when you think back through history, there are a few moments in time that would likely have changed history: the invention of indoor plumbing, electricity, computers, mobile phones, the internet, the forming of nations. Wouldn’t it be interesting to tag along and see these events unfold? You will not find these events in this book though.

It is also interesting to think of events in time, because even if you stopped them, are they inevitable? For example, if Netflix didn’t exist, Hulu would probably still pop up. If you stopped the invention of electricity, would it just be invented a few years later?

This is How You Lose The Time War is not completely horrible. It discusses interesting topics and does have some unique features.

“There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there?” This quote really got me thinking. Letters are time traveling. For example, when I write a letter and stick it in an envelope, and someone reads it ten years later, my thoughts are traveling through time. When I write the letter, I will have no idea the condition of the reader or the social, economic, political, or technological landscape. A problem that I have today might be irrelevant in the future. It is a very interesting concept, time traveling by letter.

The most interesting thing about this book is the way that Red and Blue communicate. They communicate using a different medium every time. They understand each other.

Please note that the text copy on Scribd of This is How You Lose The Time War does not seem to be very accurate. When I was listening to the audiobook, I noticed that the book had prophet when the word was poet. The text also had something about a Trojan hoarse.

Overall, This is How You Lose The Time War is an average fantasy novel with underwhelming time travel elements.

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

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Profile Image for mina reads™️.
544 reviews7,013 followers
August 5, 2022
if you gave this book anything less than five stars your third eye wasn’t open wide enough
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,093 reviews17.7k followers
November 15, 2020
Congratulations to the 2020 Hugo winner for best novella!

But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.

I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.

This Is How You Lose the Time War is about two women, Red and Blue, on opposite sides of a time war, as they fall in love with each other via love letters. It… was a lot to process. This is more poetry than book, and I think maybe in another timeline, another time in my life, that would have annoyed me. In this case, I adored it.

This is a novel about time that does not try to ground itself or stick to a place and a setting. Gladstone and El-Mohtar stick to flurid details of this world: Red’s technology-centric future, and Blue’s natural paradise. The chaotic details surround the reader from the start: the rise and fall of multiple Atlantises, the sheer amount of the timestream, and—the biggest threat—the sheer unwinnability of the war. Rather, it sticks to a love story, to the simpleness of caring.

What does it actually mean to hunger as a crafted, manufactured creature? What does it mean to love as such? What does it mean when to desire is painful, and has consequences for both you and the other person?

The letters are the standout, the flying colors of the novel. There is something very profound about this Romeo-Juliet esque love story, one neither of them have a chance at surviving from the start. Communicating is an act of bravery and it is through these acts of bravery that they fall in love. I went trawling through Wikipedia and found out this about the letters:
..."Red's letters were written entirely by Gladstone, and Blue's by El-Mohtar; although they wrote a general outline beforehand, "the reactions of each character were developed with a genuine element of surprise on receiving each letter, and the scenes accompanying [the letters] were written using that emotional response"."

Don’t let all the doom fool you, though; this is by no means a sad book. The story of Red and Blue falling in love through time is one that I spent more time smiling at than crying at. I loved getting to know these characters. I hungered to know them more.

I want to meet you in every place I have loved.

If you like:
🌿Time travel, or time travel wars
🌿Tender sapphic romance
🌿Thinking about the innate pain and humiliation of desire
🌿Very very gorgeous writing
🌿Crying. i wish i were kidding i cried so much it was kind of bad
...then I think you will like this book.

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Profile Image for Sofia.
231 reviews6,958 followers
July 29, 2021
Told from the perspectives of two time-travelers on either side of the battlefield, This is How You Lose the Time War is a haunting, lyrical, abstract love story for the ages.

Red and Blue, rival agents in a dystopian world, are polar opposites. Red works for the Agency, an ultramodern society where hunger has been eradicated by technology. Blue belongs to Garden, an entity that exists in organic matter everywhere. When Red finds a mocking, sardonic letter from Blue in the ashes of a war zone, they begin to exchange letters in the most creative ways possible. As they slowly get to know each other, they develop a deep bond despite fate's insistence on pulling them apart. Red and Blue play a cat-and-mouse game with their employers as they struggle to keep their connection private. Despite their harsh teasing of each other in the earlier letters, they quickly become friends.

From the very beginning, we are thrown into the story with no explanation. We're left to figure it all out as we go along. The way the story was executed was perfect. We're given tidbits of information at a time and our brains are left to fill the gaps, creating a world that is fantastical and personal.

I have to give the concept credit. It's genius. It may seem repetitive at first, but it builds so slowly to the very satisfying ending that left me wanting more. But I can appreciate the beauty in the briefness of the story. It's over so quickly, a flame that burns brightly and is extinguished quickly.

So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden's, not your mission's, but yours, alone.

This is How You Lose the Time War is a fresh, creative, and intelligent short novel, filled with insight and careful character development.

5 stars, would reread
65 reviews3 followers
September 15, 2019
Me: No one could ever make a story about two genetically engineered super soldiers fighting a time-travel war boring.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone: Hold our pretentious beverage
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,099 followers
January 27, 2020
Re-Read 12/17/19:

I've been thinking about this novella for months since I read it last. It just kept sticking to the roof of my mouth and I loved the flavor sooo much. :)

It's poetry. A tragic romance written as a super-hard-SF spy vs spy. And it's poetry. :)

I LOVE this so much.

Original review:

Damn excellent SF novella. I won't have any problems nominating this for next year's Hugo. It's poetical, yo. Not only poetical, but delightfully unforced in its romance... even as the time war rages between heavy tech and heavy biopunk up and down multiple timelines in a game of Go! that stretches to near-infinity.

Wait. Did I say romance? Yep. Hard SF romance, so light and deft in its hardcore science it becomes a whirlwind of ambiance designed only to paint glorious pictures and denude us in playful taste, hunger, and excitement.

The novella is mostly written in epistolary format, which I love, and it evokes so much crazy longing between these two enemies that it is pretty obvious that they have completely fallen for each other by the third exchange. :) Even if they're plotting their opposite's death by strange and subtle threads and means up and down the timelines. :)

Gloriously so, the tastes of history are obscure and rich. The format of the letters, even more so. Written in plants, seeds, only readable through taste or stings. Scorched space battlements and desolate beaches, dinosaurs and playful birds. Did I say this was poetry? Poetry as prose? The hunger is palpable, the romance, desperate.

Sure, they're post-human women, but the shape doesn't matter when they take whatever shapes they like. The feeling is everything.

So how does it turn out? Is it a tragedy? I will not say. But I feel lighter than air after reading this. It deserves a careful read. An engrossing read. A consuming read. :)
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,173 followers
May 10, 2023
All good stories travel from the outside.

This is a passionate, genre-storming prose poem about temptation and the paradox of opposites that are not: of hunter and prey, tempter and victim - one and the same.

I want to chase you, find you, I want to be eluded and teased and adored; I want to be defeated and victorious - I want you to cut me, sharpen me.


The first temptation is to defy the instruction to “Burn before reading”, and the climax hinges on whether or not to succumb to the urge to read a poison pen letter. In between, there are the temptations of rule-breaking (including the rules of genre), devising and rising to reckless challenges, and the lure of forbidden love. No serpent or apple, but there is the possibility of an Eden.

Battling through time

Red (written by Max Gladstone) and Blue (written by Amal El-Mohtar) work for opposing organisations: the post-human cyborg Agency and biopunk Garden, respectively: “flash and dash” versus “patient planting and pruning”. Their bodies, personalities, and words reflect that… to begin with.

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. My viney-hivey elfworld, as you say, versus your techy-mechy dystopia.

They travel time in unexplained ways to shape and guard the future their bosses desire, trying to outwit Orwell’s famous line in 1984 (see my review HERE): “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

Image: The authors (Source.)

Epistolary love

There’s a kind of time travel in letters”.
They are letters in the loosest sense: steganography in tree rings, seeds, molten lava, bee stings, stars and more. Almost out of sight, the shadow Seeker gathers, works, and consumes the broken, illegible remnants.

Image: Message in lava? (Source.)

"Assassinations become assignations."
It’s a sort of Romeo and Juliet up and down the twisty threads of time: braiding, cutting, cauterising. A shimmering kaleidoscope of butterfly effects.

I have known you since before I knew you.
Literally true for those who travel in time. Who loved who first? Who existed first?
Under the spreading chestnut tree, I made you and you made me.

What sort of novel is this?

It’s unpolycategorisable, and revels in that. Genres include: sci-fi (minus the science), time-travel, alternative history, speculative, futuristic, dystopian, Utopian, poetry, epistolary, action thriller, espionage, new weird, LGBTQ+ love, fantasy, magical realism, tragedy, comedy…

Freedom from futility

What lasting advantage comes from murdering ghosts, who, with a slight shift of threads will return to life or live different lives that never bring them to the executioner’s blade?

It’s red and blue, not black and white. Their love is transgressive not because they are both female, but because they are meant to be enemies, even though there is no binary sense of good and evil. When you’re constantly rewriting events, right and wrong become as mercurial as “history” itself.

Wars are dense with causes and effects.” Time wars especially, and when any battle can be rerun with a different outcome, war is even more futile than in a linear, single universe. That realisation is liberating.

Subtle diversity

Red, Blue, and Red’s Commandant are brave, intelligent, strong, women, taking charge of their lives. I appreciate normalising that by not shouting about it, but I don’t think I’d have noticed their gender if it hadn’t been stated, which rather dilutes the point. However, I prefer subtlety to sledgehammers: immediately after this, I read The Psychology of Time Travel (see my review HERE), which constantly reminds readers how diverse the characters are.

Up, down, back, forward, but how?

Details of the mechanics would be out of place in such ethereal writing, but sometimes it’s frustratingly opaque:
In downthread server farms couched in remnant icebergs’ hearts, she circles back upon her tail.
I wanted just a little more understanding, especially early on.

I found the idea of upthread being the “stable past” and downthread being the “fraying future” so counter-intuitive, I had to keep checking my notes. Obviously the pages have a gravitational pull from top to bottom (“How strange to uncover things in sequence”, Red says of books), but I visualise the threads of the past hanging below the present. My fault, but distracting.

Image: Braided sweet grass (Source.)


• “Most strands lack Atlantis altogether, knowing the place only through dreams and mad poets’ madder whispers.”

• “I want to be a context for you, and you for me.”

• “Threads of time sing with the light, swift footfalls of… soldiers.”

• “Moss breathes fumes of sleep.���

• “Pollen thickens the air with wisdom.”

Image: Fan art, by Kori Michele (Source.)

I’ve added line breaks to these, but not changed the words.

“London… one strand over -
is the kind of London other Londons dream:
sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles.
The viciousness of empire acknowledged
only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar.
Mannered as a novel,
filthy only where story requires it,
all meat pies and monarchy.”

“The dreams towards which she rocks him…
will spiral tendrils of possibility from this strand into others,
send tremors to shift and shake the future’s boughs in Garden’s direction.”

“As the great Gallumfry lists planetward,
raining escape pods,
as battle stations wilt like flowers tossed into film,
as radio bands crackle triumph
and swiftskimmers swoop after fleeing voidtails,
as guns speak their last arguments into mute space,
she slips away.”

“I wick the longing into thread,
pass it through your needle eye,
and sew it into hiding somewhere beneath my skin,
embroider my next letter to you one stitch at a time.”

“Space here is sick.
She drowns in cloying honey-heavy light.
Her passage through vacuum feels like sliding over meat…
Far away and too, too near shines a sun that is an eye with a great hourglass pupil like a goat’s,
sweeping space for weaknesses to improve, exploit…
Thick fluid space opens.”

Dedicated, recommended, tempted - or not

This is dedicated “To you. PS. Yes, you.” Perhaps Blue’s recommendation of Travel Light is to me as well as Red. GR says it’s a fantasy with a strong female lead, written by a Scottish Victorian. Back to temptation.

The TV rights have been optioned, with the original writers doing the scripts. I don’t want to see concrete manifestation of characters and worlds that are so ethereal, but curiosity may win.
Profile Image for Claudia Lomelí.
Author 8 books76.7k followers
January 27, 2020
No me encantó, pero tampoco lo odié. Creo que fue una lectura... hmm... tampoco podría decir que fue regular, porque sí me ha dejado pensando y creo que la prosa es muy bella, pero diría que es eso: simplemente no me encantó.

Es un poco confuso, no sólo al principio; todo el libro es confuso. No les mentiré, hubo momentos en los que quise abandonarlo, pero no lo hice porque me interesaba saber el destino de las protagonistas. Entonces eso sí se lo doy: pudo mantenerme intrigada.

Entiendo a las personas que le dan 5 estrellas, ¡es un libro bello con una historia de amor bastante intensa! PERO... pues no fue para mí.
Profile Image for Mary ~Ravager of Tomes~.
350 reviews941 followers
March 3, 2020
Actual Rating: 1.5 Stars

Well I’m incredibly sad that I didn’t enjoy this more given all the rave reviews & what sounded like a super intriguing premise.

Agents of two opposing factions, time traveling through what is described as “braids” of alternate realities & dimensions, falling in love against their better judgement. Also they’re queer. Literally no part of this premise sounds bad to me.

Unfortunately it’s the execution of this idea that sends this book into a nosedive for me.

Normally I don’t mind a bit of flowery writing. Some of my favorite authors are known for their superfluous & whimsical styles.

But oh boy are we talking full on flower garden, here.

This book so chalk full of complicated metaphors, awkward turns of phrase, and segmented scenery that I just couldn’t find a comfortable footing at all while I read.

I understand that this was likely exactly the intent of the authors when they crafted this tale. It’s not necessarily about the situation, not about the individual scenarios our characters find themselves in. Rather, it’s about their relationship development.

And I guess maybe that had me feeling sort of off balance? Like I could’ve done with more information about the time war that’s mentioned in the title, but that just isn’t really meant to be the focus of the story.

There’s almost no feeling of concreteness to the anything that takes place, if that makes sense. Genuinely, there were times while reading this book that I really didn’t know what visual or emotional experience the author was trying to steer me toward, and it left me feeling adrift & unconnected to the story.

I found my inner reader saying “...well okay then” to herself quite a lot more than usual & that just didn’t make for a comfortable reading experience. Like I was just wading slowly through a nonsensical, Alice in Wonderland adjacent world of words & waiting for solid pieces to latch onto.

But I will say that I did like the two main characters & their “enemies to lovers but still enemies sorta” romance, and I found the resolution incredibly fitting for the story being told. It addresses a small problem I’d been having for 99% of my reading so I appreciated that.

This isn’t something that would be near the top of my list of recommendations by any means, but if you’re a fan of a more abstract story about two badass women falling in love & inter-dimensional time travel, maybe it’s for you!
Profile Image for Mimi.
698 reviews198 followers
June 21, 2022
I am too cold-blooded to appreciate this novella in its entirety, but I am not too dense to see that it wasn't written for the likes of me or even with me in mind.

This book will appeal to a number of people, as it should because it's written with love. You could feel it in every sentence. However, the readers who aren't within its reach will most likely want to set it on fire.

And that's fine. To each their own. I only wanted to say that, even though it didn't work for me, I'm sure a lot of readers will love it and appreciate its craft and depth.

More thoughts and spoilers to be added later.

* * * * *

It's been a couple of days since I finished reading, and I think I got it now.

For me, it boils down to the story not making much sense, and the ending, which should have tied everything together, doesn't make sense either. So the experience of reading was like wading through a tunnel filled to the top with poetic word salad, only to find absolutely nothing at the end. No closure, no pay off, no sense of what this book is about. I swear I read it from cover to cover, and yet I have almost no grasp on the story itself.

So this isn't so much a review as it is a whiteboard in which I list what I think happened in this book.

In the far distant future, there are two factions at war. Each side has time-traveling agents tasked with going back and forth in time to alter certain events, called strands, that would presumably ripple through time and affect whatever timeline the two opposing factions currently occupy. If this sounds complicated, it's because it is and quite possibly too complicated for this pair of authors.

The purpose of altering these strands is all a gamble though from what I can parse out. Each side thinks that changing, or rather course-correcting, the past and the future will lead their side to winning the time war.
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. My viny-hivey elfworld, as you say, versus your techy-mechy dystopia. We both know it’s nothing so simple, any more than a letter’s reply is its opposite. But which egg preceded what platypus? The ends don’t always resemble our means. But enough philosophy.

The importance of this quote is to showcase the first time this book made me cringe.

As interesting as it sounds, the time war doesn't play out in the book, which is what I'm most frustrated about. That this over-the-top concept doesn't get adequate page-time, because it's only an elaborate backdrop for a much lesser story--pseudo love story?--between two opposing agents, called Red and Blue, is a waste. Not only of what could have been quite good, but of my time as well.

The book opens on a battlefield sometime in the distant future where bodies are strewn about everywhere. Red walks among the corpses, and we're told that her side has won this battle. Then she sees a vaguely familiar face across the field and stumbles across a letter from Blue, written in a mocking tone about setting a trap.

The next chapter opens with Blue, somewhere in time, on a mission. In the middle of doing whatever she has been tasked to do, she finds a letter from Red, also written in a mocking tone. It teases about a trap.
We make so much of lettercraft literal, don’t we? Whacked seals aside. Letters as time travel, time-travelling letters. Hidden meanings.

I wonder what you see me saying here.

I, too, wonder the same thing.

They alternate from chapter to chapter, and at the end of every chapter they find a mocking letter from the other agent. The letters contain a mix of references to a number of things, most of them literary and obscure. They also contain what seem to me like inside jokes between the authors and their writer friends. Red and Blue also call each other cutesy names on the variations of the colors "red" and "blue." That gave me indigestion.

Although the chapters and letters are short, wading through them and working out the syntax seemed to take hours for me. I didn't get or cared about most of the inside jokes and couldn't see the point of this back-and-forth exchange between Red and Blue.
I veer rhapsodic; my prose purples.

You definitely do. The other one, as well. On that, we are in agreement.

Over the course of these letters and at around the half-way point of the book, Red and Blue "fall in love" and their regards for each other intensify with each correspondence. This came out of nowhere to me. I had to back up a few chapters to see what I'd miss, which was nothing. It literally came out of nowhere. I think Red was the first one to say it, and then Blue agreed. They are in love with each other from that moment on. At no point during the story do Red and Blue meet face to face, and their letters are a confounding tangle to work through. So this falling in love business is a head-scratcher to me.
Sometimes when you write, you say things I stopped myself from saying. I wanted to say, I want to make you tea to drink, but didn’t, and you wrote to me of doing so; I wanted to say, your letter lives inside me in the most literal way possible, but didn’t, and you wrote to me of structures and events. I wanted to say, words hurt, but metaphors go between, like bridges, and words are like stone to build bridges, hewn from the earth in agony but making a new thing, a shared thing, a thing that is more than one Shift.

Do you laugh, sea foam? Do you smile, ice, and observe your triumph with an angel’s remove? Sapphire-flamed phoenix, risen, do you command me once again to look upon your works and despair?

PS. I write to you in stings, Red, but this is me, the truth of me, as I do so: broken open by the act, in the palm of your hand, dying.

This last one literally gave me indigestion.

It just occurs to me that the language of the letters has underlying tones of sadism and masochism. There are many mentions of the violence Red and Blue wish to inflict on each other before they "fell in love." Then after they fell in love, they continue to wax poetics about violence through imagery, but this time it's of the violence of their affection for each other. Violence wrapped up in over-the-top romanticism--not a new invention, but it adds another layer to the progression of their relationship. I guess?

Nobody wins the time war, and I definitely lost time finishing this book.

This story could have and should have been around 30 pages, and it would have been just fine.

* * * * *

Update: December 2021

I've had time to think and reconsider, and a 2-star rating for this book is 2 stars too many.

* * * * *

Cross-posted on https://covers2covers.wordpress.com/2...
Profile Image for Nataliya.
781 reviews12.4k followers
May 6, 2022
A divide - organic or artificial - sometimes seems made for reaching out across, for sifting through the abyss of difference to find the threads that braid us together.

This is a story we crave - of bridging the gap, of mending the rift, of star-crossed lovers surmounting the insurmountable.
“She climbs upthread and down; she braids and unbraids history’s hair.
Red rarely sleeps, but when she does, she lies still, eyes closed in the dark, and lets herself see lapis, taste iris petals and ice, hear a blue jay’s shriek. She collects blues and keeps them.
When she is sure no one is watching, she rereads the letters she’s carved into herself.”
Let’s try to make it sound simpler and linear. There are two sides in the neverending time war, waged upthread and downthread the countless braids of time by two opposing sides: the “viny-hivey elfworlds” of the Garden and “techy-mechy dystopia” of the Agency, so different in form but so similar in the oppressive singlemindedness. Blue and Red are the opposing agents, post-human, really, who secretly start what quickly becomes an epistolary romance building up to the scream of soul, written in letters and flowers and tea leaves and birds and rope knots and lava flows, a meeting of intertwined minds and souls, a longing for the other who is both different and yet the same.
“It's amazing how much blue there is in the world if you look. You're different colors of flame. Bismuth burns blue, and cerium, germanium, and arsenic. See? I pour you into things.”

Surreal, febrile, lush - these are the words that spring to mind when I look for descriptors. To work as intended, it needs to have a dreamlike quality, and on that front it delivers determinedly and doggedly.
“So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone.
I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still, I suspect you will appreciate the token.”
And the prose, oh the prose… It’s almost mockingly self-aware - when you mix Red and Blue, you get purple. Oh yes you do. It states so outright, making sure you don’t miss it. It could have let it be more subtle, but then I would not have grinned in delight at this pun which my brain already had made a few times in this story of mixing Red and Blue:

“I veer rhapsodic; my prose purples.”

This story hinges on the pull and embrace of purplish prose, of the ornate lush febrile narration, on the magic of elaborate weaving of words. It’s both alluring and suffocating, deliberately so. It’s synesthesthetic, almost tactile, the feel of a migrainous aura. I resist its pull and yet so readily succumb to it, just as intended.
“You’ve whetted me like a stone. I feel almost invincible in our battles’ wake: a kind of Achilles, fleet footed and light of touch. Only in this nonexistent place our letters weave do I feel weak.
How I love to have no armor here.”

This story reminds me of the fragments of those dreams you always seem to have just before waking, the dreams that you can’t quite fully recall but that are right there right at the brink of consciousness.
“I sought loneliness when I was young. You’ve seen me there: on my promontory, patient and unaware.
But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.
I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.”
I see what it’s doing. I see what it’s working hard to make you feel. I see the puppeteer strings designed to play with your emotions.

I see that it’s not even trying to be subtle.

And yet I’m powerless to resist its allure.
“I don’t give a shit who wins this war, Garden or the Agency—towards whose Shift the arc of the universe bends.
But maybe this is how we win, Red.
You and me.
This is how we win.”


For a similar feel (and flawless execution), read Catherynne M. Valente’s Silently and Very Fast (my review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...)


My Hugo and Nebula Awards Reading Project 2020: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

Also posted on my blog.
Profile Image for Cece (ProblemsOfaBookNerd).
332 reviews7,305 followers
January 27, 2020
This is a book so beautifully written and perfectly conceived that I know any words I write about it will pale in comparison. If you want an ambitious, complex, utterly unique romeo and juliet f/f romance set amidst a centuries long time war (and how could you not want that?) then this is the book for you. I want this entire book tattooed over every inch of my body so that I can remember every single word forever.
Profile Image for Billie.
930 reviews79 followers
April 30, 2019
Okay. So. Hmm. I loved the love story aspect of it and generally got the gist of what was going on, but there was some big-picture world building that either went completely over my head (likely) or was missing (possible). Being dumped into the middle of a story that has been going on, off the page, for who-knows-how-long can be disorienting. And maybe it was meant to be. Or maybe I'm just not smart enough for this book. Or maybe it was a mis-step on the part of the authors. Whatever the reason for it, I finished the book feeling like I had missed something, like there was something there that I wasn't getting. Whatever it was, it made me feel stupid and, honestly, like the authors were having a laugh at my expense. I've no doubt that the book will be lauded for its cleverness and some well-meaning person will try to explain it all to me like I'm a four-year-old and I'll end up feeling even more lacking for having not gotten it. And I know that not every book is for every reader and I am obviously not the right readerly fit for this particular volume. But, if you're going to make me feel stupid, do it on a China Mieville level that makes me want to learn more and get smarter and not in a way that feels like I've just read a two hundred-page inside joke that only the "cool" kids will get.

Gods. I apparently have feelings about this one and I didn't realize how deeply negative those feelings were until I started typing this. I still liked the love story, though. It felt rather Nick Bantock-ish, which was a nostalgic kind of fun.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews653 followers
March 29, 2023
I want to meet you in every place I ever loved. Listen to me. I am your echo. I would rather break the world than lose you.
I want to chase you, find you, I want to be eluded and teased and adored; I want to be defeated and victorious—I want you to cut me, sharpen me. I want to drink tea beside you in ten years or a thousand. Flowers grow far away on a planet they’ll call Cephalus, and these flowers bloom once a century, when the living star and its black-hole binary enter conjunction. I want to fix you a bouquet of them, gathered across eight hundred thousand years, so you can draw our whole engagement in a single breath, all the ages we’ve shaped together.

The only things I knew about This is How You Lose the Time War before reading it were: 1) it was told through a series of letters between two agents traveling through time while fighting on opposite sides of a war, and 2) it has a cool-looking cover. I’d recommend reading it with that same limited knowledge.

But perhaps you need more convincing. Red is a part of the Agency, traveling through strands of time and parallel worlds trying to give her side an edge in their war against the Garden. She is mechanical, technological. Blue is part of the Garden, traveling through those same strands and worlds trying to give her side an edge in their war against the Agency. She was literally grown from a seed. Red and Blue leave messages for each other after foiling each other’s plans. A few are paper letters; most are messages creatively hidden in items like the rings of a tree, seeds, an owl pellet, a lava flow. At first, the messages are gleeful and taunting. As time passes, and the agents get to know each other, well ... that’s where the drama unfolds.

There are a lot of themes and ideas explored in this book. Technologies and networks versus nature and ecosystems. Math versus art. Whether the soldiers on opposite sides of a war have more in common with each other than their leaders. It is a very imaginative story. But what makes this book a must-read is the writing generally, and the writing about love specifically. Reread those quotes above again; this novel is literally poetic.

I was completely blown away by This is How You Lose the Time War, and am already looking forward to rereading it. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,983 followers
July 6, 2020
Wow! Whether you end up enjoying this book or not, I think you will have to admit it is a very unique and poetic approach to such a dark and gritty sci-fi war drama. In fact, I am not sure that everyone that finds themselves usually enjoying sci-fi will enjoy this one because it is not what you would normally expect.

I really liked this book overall. I cannot say that in the end I understood everything that happened, but I think that is okay in this case. The poetry, the character development, and the relationships were more important than the world building. However, I think there are some who will appreciate the sci-fi world building that serves as the stage for the main storyline.

Some may note that this novella is categorized as a "Romance". When I hear the word "Romance" I think of bodice rippers with shirtless men in kilts and damsels in tattered blouses lusting after them. That is NOT the "Romance" you will find here. No sex or gratuitous exchange of bodily fluids. Just strong longing, passion, and desire through words.

If you like unique sci-fi, you might like this. If you like heart-wrenching love stories, you might like this. If you like both of those things, you will love this! Give it a try!

NOTE: I forgot to add this when I originally wrote my review but meant to add it. I do think that many might find this hard to get into at first. I listened to it and ended up listening to a good portion of the beginning twice. I am not saying that it will definitely click through after you struggle through the beginning, but don't be surprised by a tough start.
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