Time War

“This is How You Lose the Time War,” by Amal El-Mothtar & Max Gladstone. Saga Press, 2019. 208 pages, $19.99.

I’ve always loved a good time travel yarn. “The Explorer” by James Smythe is a tight, weird story that I’ve read several times. “Interstellar” has been my favorite movie since I first saw it in 2015. “Roswell that Ends Well” is still the best put-together episode of Futurama (including the classic line, “Oh! A lesson in not changing history from Mr. I’m-My-Own-Grandpa!”) But “This is How You Lose the Time War” is a time travel story I’ve never seen anything like, and I enjoy it.

“Time War” is a delicate mash of several genres: sci-fi, time travel, romance, espionage and ... correspondence? Yes, in a bizarre turn for a book about time-hopping secret agents, the majority of the book and nearly all of its ideas are printed on letters.

Each chapter is alternately told through the eyes of the two main characters: Red and Blue. If this strikes a familiar chord to those of you who remember the “Spy vs. Spy” comics, you’re not alone. The beginning chapters are heavily reminiscent of the absurdly over-complicated spy games of the white and black spies. Red and Blue show up to a place, find they’ve been foiled and receive a message in a form so ridiculous it would make “Mission Impossible” blush. These letters are where the real story takes place.

As is unfortunately true with these books, telling anything beyond the basic plot quickly leads to the spoiler-mire swamps, so I’ll stay away from it. Suffice to say the staccato tone of the opening chapters doesn’t last, a sort of romance blooms, and the plot becomes increasingly complicated. If the tempo of the opening of the book had stayed the same (show up, foiled, letter with clever taunts, next chapter) I probably would not have enjoyed “Time War.” Luckily, the stakes rise quickly enough to keep the reader’s attention.

One of the things I love about this book is the wildly different futures it presents and how they contrast. Each agent comes from an alternate future, both of which are mutually exclusive and each side spends much of its energy pruning and curating time streams that lead to a higher probability of theirs being the ultimate victorious future. You’ll have to read for yourself to find out about them.

Another aspect of the book I liked is how intentionally detail is handed out. At the beginning you merely have a name, “Red.” You don’t know what she looks like or the nature of her employer, except that it’s in the future and called “The Agency.” Meanwhile, the equally nondescript and mysterious “Blue” is only identifiable by her work for “The Garden.” Throughout this short story, details are slowly worked out, each serving to accentuate the differences between the two futures, their styles and even the agents’ appearance.

“This is How You Lose the Time War” is a fascinatingly weird book that moves sci-fi espionage beyond its standard grim-dark roots and plants it in a pleasantly poetic garden. The prose is light. The story is brief. And yet it contains enough story in it to fill a novel, given sufficient padding. I was pleasantly surprised by this strange twist on a traditionally strange genre.

Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.

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