A Love Letter to Words, or This is How You Lose the Time War
by Julia Vaz, Staff Contributor
In most book reviews, the writer first provides the synopses of the analyzed work to ground readers in the discussion. They do it simply because context matters, and while the small description I am about to present does impact your understanding of my following review, it is fundamental that you know that This is How You Lose the Time War is a book that will challenge your imagination. While important details are given, most of the questions, such as why, how, and when, are kept unanswered. By doing so, I believe, the writers - Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone - were able to construct a beautiful timeless narrative that criticizes destruction by praising beauty.
Somewhere, at some point, some world is at war. Agents from the Agency and the Garden, two rival societies, are sent on time travels to make changes that would guarantee a positive outcome for each faction. Perhaps, if the construction of this reality was not so vague, the plot itself could be considered simple. The butterfly effect is not exactly innovative for science fiction. Yet, while agents deal with the fact that "A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet," a correspondence starts. Intercalating between letters exchanged between Red (an agent from the Agency), and Blue (Garden), and narrative, the writers paint without restrictions. Its logic is flawed, the explanations are rare, the constraints are nonexistent. From one Atlantis (because there is more than one) to fancy hotel rooms, dense forests, and boats on the ocean, a bond is built through words that need to be burned before reading, swollen from seeds, or found inside of animals.
Addimetely, this book will not please every reader, in fact, it can divide opinions very radically. A quick search on Goodreads can reveal those who wholeheartedly loved the experience and those who just as passionately hated it. Its unique structure, relying so heavily on letters, and poetic writing style can draw many away. Yet, it also pulls the ones that are enchanted by lyricism closer. With exquisitely crafted sentences like "A confession is also a dare is also a compulsion," (notice the lack of commas) and "Feels like teetering on the brink of something that will unmake me," this book is a love letter, to writing, to capturing feelings inside sentences and allowing them to time travel and to fall in love.
Its lack of context is also criticism. Does providing a reason really make wars worth fighting? Does it justify their destruction? In my opinion, the writers would answer no to both questions. Moreover, the stark contrast between the book's language and the situation that drives it further discusses the resistance of love, art, and poetry. While soldiers from the agency are trained to detach themselves from the world around them, "Red likes to feel. It is a fetish." Humanity slips through every page, it cascades down descriptions of sunlight in water, of trees falling in forests and making sounds, blood that is left behind, furnaces and flames, waves on rocks, and of drinking tea, to defy the violence that wishes to unmake it.
Finally, while the sci-fi aspects of this novella are vague and elusive, the romance is tangible and memorable. It is slow and warm, tempting, and treacherous. It is a romance that leaves marks on your skin, claims all your senses, challenges your concepts of intimacy, and demands to be read out loud in hushed promises. "At the end as at the start, and through all the in-betweens, I love you."
This is How You Lose the Time War is a book that lingers. It surpassed my expectations, made me cry, and fall in love with writing again. Reading this book is a lesson on how books can be more than plot, characters, or action-packed scenes. Books can speak quieter but reach deeper. It reminded me of the power of literature to evoke emotions that not always can (or should) be named. It is a book to reread, highlight, and break the spine. It is a book that deserves to be treasured, and that, as you can probably tell by now, I can not praise enough.
If you see beauty in words in a way that you do not see in anything else, pick it up. You will not be disappointed.