This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There’s something fascinating about the “Time War” scenario which we find in, for instance, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and the stories from the 50s and 60s published as The Change War, or Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time. In El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s short but emotionally-packed novel we get something similar to Leiber, in which the Change War is fought by two forces, the “Spiders” and the “Snakes” who never quite reach the dynamic of “good guys” versus “bad guys”. Here, we have two agents in a battle fought throughout tangled braids of human alternate-history/parallel-worlds between the Agency and the Garden: whose characteristics—material, technological, militaristic versus organic, insidious, ruthless—become part of the conflict. Following a cataclysmic battle, the Agency operative, Red, savours her victory, and finds ambiguity in it. She picks up a letter from her Garden adversary Blue; a mocking taunt to an opponent, to which, in a sense that this is a tournament and a tease, she replies in the same vein.

This Is How You Lose the Time War

And thus begins another always-fascinating scenario, the battle between two opponents in a war who come to find a kindred-spirit in the enemy: the secret-agents who find in the to-and-fro of the “game” a personal satisfaction more attractive than ideological commitment. Already there is much to like in the novel, and as Red and Blue exchange ever more ingenious letters and self-revelations after each of their confrontations, this becomes a love story playfully referencing Ghengis Khan, Atlantis, Romeo and Juliet, the poet Thomas Chatterton, Wordsworth’s “Marvellous Boy”, and the Russian Front during World War Two (or at least, versions of all these, and more.) From mocking adversaries, Red and Blue become passionate if distanced lovers. At one point, Red writes “I veer rhapsodic: my prose purples”, and there are certainly times when playfulness hovers over whimsey without (for this reader at least), ever tipping in the wrong direction. There are enough asides, mini-digressions (Naomi Mitchison’s novel Travel Light at one point becomes part of the conversation) and sharply-if-briefly imagined alternative “strands” to make up a dozen novels in the Leiber/Anderson tradition, but the focus is upon the tension and teasing which never stops until it becomes clear that their superiors suspect that something is going on between their top agents, and something drastic is going to have to happen. 

We know from our extra-generic reading that secret agents groom and attempt to “turn” each other. This is a novel of traps and tangles, duels and seduction, as if a writer of eighteenth-century epistolary romances had suddenly discovered Golden Age science fiction, though it is considerably sharper and more snapshot than the one and much, much more lyrical than the other. The methods with which the “letters” are written and exchanged are themselves beautifully and baroquely imagined, and worth the price of admission. But as we progress towards the inevitable denouement, there are scenes and evocations that are the distinct opposite from the cuteness and sentimentality that a brief summary of the plot might suggest. You suddenly find yourself seeing “Red” and “Blue” as characters rather than symbols in a highly literary confection, and actively want to see how this will work out. At this point, the authors deliver, and we find that we have been reading not a series of highly-wrought vignettes, but a carefully plotted novel. I would not be surprised to see it among the competitors for at least one major award; nor would I be particularly surprised to see it waved aside as “too clever for its own good”. So I shall come down with an opinion: this is almost certainly the best book I have read this year and one that I intend to re-read for the third time. Behind the playfulness, there’s a dark humour, an aspiration for passion, and, yes, a science-fictional inventiveness that comes along too rarely.

(c) Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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