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

Jo Fletcher Books, 2019, 203 p. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 This is How You Lose the Time War cover

On behalf of the Agency, Red travels upthread into the past and downthread to the future to effect changes in the different Strands of the worlds, (“so many Atlantises,”) waging an eternal time war against Garden, tweaking conditions here, ensuring individuals thrive there, so that they may be in a position to affect history in the Agency’s favour.

At the end of one such mission Red finds a letter which should not be there and on which is inscribed the instruction, “burn before reading.” Despite knowing that it is a trap designed perhaps to kill her, to convert her to the other side, or to compromise her with her own, she decides to comply with the instruction and reads the message. It is from her adversary, Blue; an acknowledgement of her part in making Blue raise her own game, an expression of admiration, a declaration of inevitable victory. Red responds with a letter of her own.

So begins a long correspondence achieved through an increasingly bizarre series of dead drops in which the two agents’ regard for one another deepens and grows into something else.

The book’s narrative is carried via sequences describing Red’s and Blue’s endeavours to change different strands’ histories, each followed by the contents of a letter written to one by the other. Only in one instance is this strict authorial practice not followed and that is where Blue’s letter is encoded in six seeds but Red only swallows three of them and so only gets part of the whole message. (This makes sense in the context of the novel.) Their letters are studded with recommendations, allusions and digressions and embellished by postscripts, PPS’s and even at times PPPS’s.

In all but the first (and the three ante-penultimate) non-epistolary sections the reader is vouchsafed a line or two at the end wherein a seeker manages to reconstitute the letter we are about to read for ourselves. Red becomes aware of this pursuer and is continually looking over her shoulder to see if she can catch her shadower and therefore also wary of contact with her Commandant in case she is suspected of treason. So too, Blue with Garden.
The deployment of various Science Fiction tropes is essential to the novel’s overall effect but to begin with they are merely there, as a kind of exotic background; none of the strands or missions is explored in any detail, there is no mechanism ascribed to the ability to travel in time, Red and Blue are just able to do it. Up to its denouement the plot could have been akin, say, to the jockeyings of John le Carré’s Smiley and Karla but its resolution and the identity of the mysterious seeker are thoroughly dependent on the story’s premise.

All this is laced with the occasional piece of sly humour – a group of participants at the assassination of Julius Caesar (or, rather, a Julius Caesar) seems to consist entirely of agents known to Red – and allusions such as “hoarse Trojans” and “across half a dozen strands, of mice, of men, plans, canals, Panama.” Add in references to Ozymandias, Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence, Bess of Hardwick and an exhortation by Blue to Red for her to read Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (of which we are later given a short critique) and the reading experience becomes a rich one. The letters are a particular delight. Necessarily so, for they are the narrative’s focus, the means by which we come to understand and appreciate the relationship between Red and Blue, and their mutual goals.

This is a book which eschews the flash, bang, wallop of much of the modern SF genre, containing SF of an enquiring and knowing kind, yet playful with it. Discursive, though relatively short, it is still economic, packing a lot into its 199 pages. It deserves a wide audience.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:-“knew one other” (one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres,) “it amuses Blue to no end” (that would mean ‘without purpose’; ‘it amuses Blue no end’ is the phrase required.) “Adaption is the price of victory” (Adaptation is the..,) “colour” but “humor” (does one of the authors use USian spellings while the other doesn’t?) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) proboscides (it is the Greek plural of proboscis – the ‘English’ plural is proboscises – but I’ve only ever seen probosces before. Apparently that has a specialised use in biology.)

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