This is How You Lose the Time War

In this novella by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, Red is a covert agent in a war raging across time. She is advanced beyond what we can comprehend as mere 21st-century readers, able to transform into whatever shape is needed, blending into any time and place, subtly adjusting the strands of causality to build new futures in a constantly shifting multiverse, the way generals build battlefield positions on the field of war.

One day, Red finds one of her carefully-laid plans foiled, and a playful message waiting for her from Blue, her counterpart on the opposing side. A rivalry takes shape, and from it, a romance. Attack and counter-attach across time, punctuated by ever more elaborate (and personal) coded messages.


For most of the book, each chapter follows one of these agents on a mission to a new place and time. Never enough to understand the purpose exactly, or the larger framing of the time war. Then, the text of a letter from one agent to the other. The next chapter, the point of view swaps.

I wondered at first how long the structure could sustain the story. However, the times and places are varied and tantalizing without being entirely clear, and the slow shift from rivalry to romance is believable and satisfying.

There is also an additional mystery woven throughout — an unidentified seeker that follows Red and Blue from chapter to chapter, studying and absorbing the correspondence they believe to be carefully hidden or destroyed. If they are found out, by their own superiors or the enemy, they will both be undone. Eventually, the back-and-forth structure does break down, and it’s the mystery of the seeker that comes to the fore and carries the story to its conclusion.

Respecting the Reader

In proper time-travel fashion, the story wraps around and through itself, as we discover that the characters are far more intertwined than even they knew. The authors make the wise decision to not go too deep into the details of time travel or the complexities of rewriting timelines across parallel universes. It mostly avoids, through obscurity, the inevitable inconsistencies that tend to bring out the worst kind of overly-pedantic reviewers.

The book doesn’t dawdle around, explaining the exact nature of the war, the two sides, or even the agents. We are thrown into a strange world head-first (many, in fact), and expected to keep up. We know that Red’s Agency faction uses advanced technology and bold tactics, and Blue’s Garden faction uses advanced biology and subtly turns the enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. And that’s enough.

I Feel Seen

The book has, at this point, won pretty much all of the best awards a sci-fi novella is eligible to win. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like it was tailored to me.

I was delighted to find references to strategy in the game of Go (atari and lack of liberties). Granted, Go is probably more popular in the West than ever before, but it still feels like an obscure hobby. The characters also discuss Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison, a favorite of mine and the best book that I have ever discovered in a Little Free Library. I don’t expect these things to resonate with the average reader, but they further endeared the story to me.

To Summarize

This is the best book I’ve read in 2021, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi, time travel, romance or people who discover what really matters to them, and do everything in their power to protect it. The writing is ornate without being overwrought. The story takes some unexpected (but not unreasonable) twists and turns. It’s a quick read, but feels exactly long enough.

It is, in short, quite good. Go read it.

Max Gladstone on Repetition

The always-delightful Max Gladstone discusses the good and bad of repetition in fiction.

We notice repetition as a negative. But some words do not just repeat as tics, or not merely as tics. What is a book, but a constellation of words? Each time a word is used, it accumulates new meaning from its context, and lends the meanings it has accumulated—in your particular text, and in others—to the sentence. In this way languages can be ennobled or (for a time, at least) poisoned—if you’re an American, do you feel the same way about the word ‘great’ that you did six years ago? If you’re a particular kind of nerd, when I began that sentence just now with ‘What is a book,” did you hear it followed by “a miserable little pile of secrets”?

Within a text, repeated words draw connections. What sorts of things in this book are ghosts? Is this car a ghost? This memory? Is the white of her hat a ghostlike white? “The ghost of a smile?” Fantasy and science fiction prose worldbuilding sings—or, to be honest, works at all—by loading vocabulary in this way: ’uplift’ in Brin, ‘Guardian’ in Jemisin (or the beautiful side-loading of ‘suss’ into the invented sensory verb ‘sess’), iris in Heinlein’s off-referenced ‘the door irised open.’ McKillip’s ‘riddles’ and ‘beasts’ are quite particular sorts of riddles and beasts, as are Jordan’s ‘channeling,’ and Tolkien’s ‘ring.’

Read more at Gladstone’s substack, The Third Place.