Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone - “This Is How You Lose the Time War”

The story arc is interesting but the hype is ultimately overblown. It’s an exchange of love letters by two spies of opposing far-future factions who, inexplicably, fall in love.

The time war itself is never explained. The sides are never explored beyond some basic lines: Red works for the Agency, technologically advanced, “techy-mechy dystopia”. Blue represents the Garden, force of nature, “viny-hivey elfworld”. Are they different races? Same race but different times? Same race at the same time that started warring each other? We will never know.

Time travel and the strategic need for surgical changes in the timeline are also not explained, neither is the apparent existence of parallel universes or “strands”. If there are “strands” then can you even change anything? Aren’t you just hopping to a parallel universe? How a change in an event “creates” or “merges” strands is not discussed. How catastrophically exponential changes are avoided is also not covered. The grandfather’s paradox isn’t apparently a problem. The amount of hand-waving there exceeds my ability to suspend disbelief.

You might say: yeah yeah but this is really a love story, technical details don’t matter, you insensitive clod! Well, I fail to buy that either.

How do the protagonists fall in love and why? The short letters don’t seem plausible enough to cause such strong emotional responses. They aren’t convincing to me. And how do the protagonists even know where to plant them and where to find them? Sometimes they spend time across decades to create the encoded messages. Is this time compressed by time travel? It does seem like a long time is passing for them between each letter. How do the recipients decode them with such ease while their mind-reading overlords are unable to even notice their existence? What does it mean the protagonists notice things that are “out of place”, that “don’t belong”? Most importantly, why is it so meaningful for them? We will never know.

There is freshness in the story and at least it isn’t overly drawn out. The letters do have some flowery language and the vocabulary tends to be on the fancier side, but ultimately things progress at a good pace. It is not a bad novella. However, somehow I was lead to believe that it’s life-changing, and that it is not.