Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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

I’m partial to an epistolary tale — if Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is not in my top 3 Jane Austens it is because the competition is very good. Letters provide a window into the soul of the character, but always shaped by how that character wishes to show themselves to the addressee of their letter. It's a fun device.

The letters in this novel are wonderfully written. The characters’ observations about what it feels like to be in love feel both particular to the characters (as any love is particular to the two people it binds) as well as recognizable (“I have built a you within me, or you have. I wonder what of me there is in you.”). If the characters appear to tip too suddenly from respected adversary to romantic love, I think it is because love is perhaps like that — you hold yourself back, uncertain until all of a sudden it can’t be denied.

While the romance arc itself is straightforward, the world it is set in is convoluted and for all its flashy weirdness doesn’t contribute much to the relationship developed between the two characters. Our lovebirds, Red and Blue, are time-traveling non-human (or bioengineered beyond typical human biological impulses) secret agents on two opposite sides of a conflict that is waged across all the timelines of the universe towards no clear end. What principles and values do Red and Blue fight for? What are the final objectives of the war? How did the conflict start? Unclear — except for the two sides being irreconcilable and alien to each other. Towards the end of the novella, Red nearly begins to grapple with what it means to love someone not from her own people but from the opposite side of the war, but because the political differences between the two sides are so unexplored, it feels a little empty. (Blue’s team is more organic, while hers is… bionic?) One rather wonders why the authors picked this setting to tell this love story.

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