Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.
Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?
Cowritten by two beloved and award-winning sci-fi writers, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epic love story spanning time and space.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Max Gladstone is the author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence, which Patrick Rothfuss called “stupefyingly good.” The sixth book, Ruin of Angels, was released September 2017. Max’s interactive mobile game Choice of the Deathless was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine, and in anthologies such as XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. John Crowley described Max as “a true star of 21st-century fantasy.” Max has sung in Carnegie Hall and was once thrown from a horse in Mongolia.
Read an Excerpt
This Is How You Lose the Time War
When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged—the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.
She holds a corpse that was once a man, her hands gloved in its guts, her fingers clutching its alloy spine. She lets go, and the exoskeleton clatters against rock. Crude technology. Ancient. Bronze to depleted uranium. He never had a chance. That is the point of Red.
After a mission comes a grand and final silence. Her weapons and armor fold into her like roses at dusk. Once flaps of pseudoskin settle and heal and the programmable matter of her clothing knits back together, Red looks, again, something like a woman.
She paces the battlefield, seeking, making sure.
She has won, yes, she has won. She is certain she has won. Hasn’t she?
Both armies lie dead. Two great empires broke themselves here, each a reef to the other’s hull. That is what she came to do. From their ashes others will rise, more suited to her Agency’s ends. And yet.
There was another on the field—no groundling like the time-moored corpses mounded by her path, but a real player. Someone from the other side.
Few of Red’s fellow operatives would have sensed that opposing presence. Red knows only because Red is patient, solitary, careful. She studied for this engagement. She modeled it backward and forward in her mind. When ships were not where they were supposed to be, when escape pods that should have been fired did not, when certain fusillades came thirty seconds past their cue, she noticed.
Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.
But why? Red has done what she came to do, she thinks. But wars are dense with causes and effects, calculations and strange attractors, and all the more so are wars in time. One spared life might be worth more to the other side than all the blood that stained Red’s hands today. A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet. Or her child does, or a smuggler she trades jackets with in some distant spaceport. And all this blood for nothing.
Killing gets easier with practice, in mechanics and technique. Having killed never does, for Red. Her fellow agents do not feel the same, or they hide it better.
It is not like Garden’s players to meet Red on the same field at the same time. Shadows and sure things are more their style. But there is one who would. Red knows her, though they have never met. Each player has their signature. She recognizes patterns of audacity and risk.
Red may be mistaken. She rarely is.
Her enemy would relish such a magic trick: twisting to her own ends all Red’s grand work of murder. But it’s not enough to suspect. Red must find proof.
So she wanders the charnel field of victory and seeks the seeds of her defeat.
A tremor passes through the soil—do not call it earth. The planet dies. Crickets chirp. Crickets survive, for now, among the crashed ships and broken bodies on this crumbling plain. Silver moss devours steel, and violet flowers choke the dead guns. If the planet lasted long enough, the vines that sprout from the corpses’ mouths would grow berries.
It won’t, and neither will they.
On a span of blasted ground, she finds the letter.
It does not belong. Here there should be bodies mounded between the wrecks of ships that once sailed the stars. Here there should be the death and dirt and blood of a successful op. There should be moons disintegrating overhead, ships aflame in orbit.
There should not be a sheet of cream-colored paper, clean save a single line in a long, trailing hand: Burn before reading.
Red likes to feel. It is a fetish. Now she feels fear. And eagerness.
She was right.
She searches shadows for her hunter, her prey. She hears infrasonic, ultrasound. She thirsts for contact, for a new, more worthy battle, but she is alone with the corpses and the splinters and the letter her enemy left.
It is a trap, of course.
Vines curl through eye sockets, twine past shattered portholes. Rust flakes fall like snow. Metal creaks, stressed, and shatters.
It is a trap. Poison would be crude, but she smells none. Perhaps a noovirus in the message—to subvert her thoughts, to seed a trigger, or merely to taint Red with suspicion in her Commandant’s eyes. Perhaps if she reads this letter, she will be recorded, exposed, blackmailed for use as a double agent. The enemy is insidious. Even if this is but the opening gambit of a longer game, by reading it Red risks Commandant’s wrath if she is discovered, risks seeming a traitor be she never so loyal.
The smart and cautious play would be to leave. But the letter is a gauntlet thrown, and Red has to know.
She finds a lighter in a dead soldier’s pocket. Flames catch in the depths of her eyes. Sparks rise, ashes fall, and letters form on the paper, in that same long, trailing hand.
Red’s mouth twists: a sneer, a mask, a hunter’s grin.
The letter burns her fingers as the signature takes shape. She lets its cinders fall.
Red leaves then, mission failed and accomplished at once, and climbs downthread toward home, to the braided future her Agency shapes and guards. No trace of her remains save cinders, ruins, and millions dead.
The planet waits for its end. Vines live, yes, and crickets, though no one’s left to see them but the skulls.
Rain clouds threaten. Lightning blooms, and the battlefield goes monochrome. Thunder rolls. There will be rain tonight, to slick the glass that was the ground, if the planet lasts so long.
The letter’s cinders die.
The shadow of a broken gunship twists. Empty, it fills.
A seeker emerges from that shadow, bearing other shadows with her.
Wordless, the seeker regards the aftermath. She does not weep, that anyone can see. She paces through the wrecks, over the bodies, professional: She works a winding spiral, ensuring with long-practiced arts that no one has followed her through the silent paths she walked to reach this place.
The ground shakes and shatters.
She reaches what was once a letter. Kneeling, she stirs the ashes. A spark flies up, and she catches it in her hand.
She removes a thin white slab from a pouch at her side and slips it under the ashes, spreads them thin against the white. Removes her glove, and slits her finger. Rainbow blood wells and falls and splatters into gray.
She works her blood into the ash to make a dough, kneads that dough, rolls it flat. All around, decay proceeds. The battleships become mounds of moss. Great guns break.
She applies jeweled lights and odd sounds. She wrinkles time.
The world cracks through the middle.
The ash becomes a piece of paper, with sapphire ink in a viny hand at the top.
This letter was meant to be read once, then destroyed.
In the moments before the world comes apart, she reads it again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A time travel novel that is about a war, but not really; nor is it really about the opposing forces and their reasons for fighting. It's about an agent of each side Red from the Agency and Blue from the Garden. Each faction believes it's version of a healthy future is the only way to survive, and the way humanity must persevere. Agency is very tech focused and the Garden is nature focused. Both groups fight by sending their operatives to different Strands (think of a multiverse) to make small adjustments to bring about slightly different outcomes that will have a butterfly effect on the timeline. Red and Blue are overlapping, haunting each other's missions and slightly sabotaging each other, and have been for awhile. When they start communicating with each other through over the top coded messages (i.e. burn a message before reading!) their dynamic changes. A sci-fi book not about war, not actually about the future, but about two sides caught in opposition to each other that journey towards something different.
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone have united to bring one of the most stunning works of speculative fiction I've ever read. This epistolary novella chronicles the exchanges between two spies on opposite sides of a war that permeates time and space. What began as elaborate taunts between enemies on the battlefield turns into something more. I have only one word for this whirlwind tale: breathtaking. I finished This is How You Lose the Time War in a single sitting- not because I wanted to as much as I needed to finish it. The lyrical prose combined with the masterful storytelling results in a story that dares you to put it down, and I did not dare. In just over 200 pages this book will steal your heart, shatter it, and then stitch it back together as you watch. I received my copy of This is How You Lose the Time War from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
This is How You Lose the Time War wins my award for best novella for 2019. Seriously, this novella was absolutely amazing. Beautifully written, whimsical, witty, everything. I had high hopes for this one, but they sincerely exceeded them. It’s not every day you see a novella written by two authors, so this one obviously caught my attention. It helps that I’m a fan of both Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone as well. This collaboration was so much more than I could have ever hoped for…day I say that I hope we see more from these two authors working together in the future? Because I think that needs to happen. This is How You Lose the Time War is the tale of two rival agents. Red and Blue. They’re both fighting in the same war. But at some point, the war changed for them. Something changed. They changed. I absolutely loved reading every page of this novella. It was beautiful and intricate, and oh so human in ways that I could only begin to explain. I can’t recommend it highly enough. This is How You Love the Time War is without a doubt one of the most beautifully written novellas of the year. It’s eloquent and emotional, and tells the story of the threads that tie us all together. This novella wasn’t at all what I expected. It was better. I knew it would be the tale of two agents, and based on the description, I knew that their rivalry would change into something different through the course of time. But that description doesn’t do it justice. Part of the reason this telling worked so well was because of the storytelling techniques used. The novella switched between two perspectives, Red and Blue. But it also told the story through a series of letters and notes they exchanged. This was not only beautiful, but it helped resolve a lot of the show/tell issues. Considering what this story turned into, I’m so happy that the element of letters was included. It took so many things that could have been considered a trope, and forged it into something new. And of course, it gave plenty of opportunity to playful banter between the two, while keeping their actual contact to a minimum. There was a lot to love in this novella. The rivalry turned love story was there, of course. And it was powerful. But the time travel elements were fun as well. They showed a strong understanding of both time and alternate dimensions – and showed an interesting combination of the two. What I especially loved was the comparison and contrast between the two sides. Red versus Blue. Technology versus nature. Traveling through time versus rooting through time. It was both intricate and intuitive. In many ways, it felt like I had been reading of this battle for years. I was truly sad when this novella concluded. Not because the ending itself was sad – I actually loved how they finished it – but because I didn’t want to see it end. This was an absolutely brilliant read. Nothing like anything else I’ve read. Yet I find myself craving more like it.
Red and Blue are time travelers working with the Agency and Garden respectively. They thread themselves through time, altering or influencing events in order to win the war. But what happens when these two agents begin a rivalry correspondence over space and time that eventually forms itself into something more? Wow.. Is the first word I have for this book. It's so uniquely eloquent in its execution and so layered with context and subtext. What really just stands out the most about this story, at its center, is the love story between these beings that are supposed to be enemies. The book uses the she pronoun for both Red and Blue over the course of the story, but I could really feel like they went beyond these labels and I think this comes through so well in the vastness of the many times that are visited and influenced by them in their varying forms. It's supposed to be a relatively short read, but for me, it starts out pretty slow going. Slowly as readers become acquainted with the setting and the story, the characters and the conflicts facing them. Each chapter alternates between Red and Blue with an end cap to each of a letter cleverly left in some time for the other. As their familiarity with each other grows and their love, you see the balance from the different time threads change to that of the letters dominating the chapters and I loved how you could feel them becoming comfortable, becoming more to one another through letters alone. It's heartrending in the idea of Red and Blue's separation not only often by time, but because they are on different sides of a war. There's a lot that can be interpreted in this book, and in various ways based upon the reader, but I felt like Blue represented nature and Red technology. And when taken in that context in this day and age that we will, the warring between continuing to develop technology, but understanding that in doing so oftentimes we sacrifice this planet we live on. You can really see the perspective of the war they have going on. I absolutely loved the subtly of it all. But please note, this is only one, my, interpretation of it all, there are so many possibilities that one could reach. At the center is, can Red and Blue ever get to a place where they can be together cohesively? So despite being a short read, it packs quite the punch and has some real beauty to it, yet it's not so philosophical that anyone should feel alienated from its overarching message / story. A really wonderful read.
I hate to give a rating to This is How You Lose the Time War because it is such a unique book. There are things I absolutely adore aboutt his book -- and things I don't like quite as much. This is definitely a book that will be loved by some and disliked by others. I stand in the middle - seeing so much merit to it, but there was also a lot that didn't compel me to continue with the story like some other books I've read. Red and Blue are time travelers who are supposed to be enemies. They start to taunt each other (through letters), then mutually respect each other, then grow to love each other. Their bosses begin to suspect, and that's not good. That's about all I can say about the plot. Onto the good: this book is wickedly smart. There was a line about Mongols (on page 35 of the ARC) that was absolutely brilliant. Blue and Red are constantly finding new clever things to call each other. That being said, the story may go above some people's heads. Blue and Red travel to so many different historical places, and if you're not familiar with them, you may miss a lot. There were several words I had to look up in the dictionary. How Blue and Red resolve the whole issue with their bosses is ingenious as well. There are clues to the end of the story the whole time, but it's easy to miss. That being said, there's a lot that's confusing about the book. I had to suspend belief about how they were actually sending messages to each other. I didn't really start to realize what was going on until they had sent a couple of messages back and forth. I didn't have the same need to find out what happens next as I do with some books, until the very end. Overall, this is a book that you might discover you love for its brilliance, might dislike for its confusion, or you might be in between on. If you're looking for a light read that you can just let wash over you, this isn't it; however, if you're looking for a book that's clever and really makes you think, this might be the book for you.
Let me start with this: I honestly did not expect to like this as much as I did, based on the preview. It's a novella written somewhat abstractly at first, and it does take a bit to wrap your head around the particulars of this sci-fi setting. The authors are also very good about parceling out crumbs that flesh out both the setting and the characters. The whole plot blossoms before you, and at the end when the threads of time and plot are all brought together - sublime. It is a surprisingly old-fashioned romance, through letters and mementos, forged as much through mutual respect as a mutual yearning - yearning for an anchor while being untethered from time. They come from two separate worlds, one inorganic (unembodied cyberworld) and one entirely organic (giant sentient garden), red and blue, opposites yet so very similar. It would be almost cliche, if it didn't include, say, snorting clay or having bones chime to see love letters. I read that in this case, one author wrote Red and one wrote Blue, so it becomes a tad like roleplaying, writing together like that. It makes the reactions feel more genuine. This is a sci-fi novella that would NOT translate well to a movie - too abstract, I feel - but it is honestly quite cinematic. The ending scene in the jail! Swoon. Go into this with an open mind and let This Is How You Lose the Time War take you on an adventure.
What a wonderful sci-fi/romance novella. It was beautiful and poetic and I feel like the description doesn't do it justice. You need to experience the story to know what it is really about. We begin on a battlefield where Red has just emerged victorious. Within the death of the world, she finds a letter that reads "burn before reading," thus starting her correspondence with the enemy agent Blue. The relationship that forms between Red and Blue is the ultimate enemies to lovers and it made my heart soar. You could easily see their relationship evolving from taunting hatred to respect to friendship and then to love through their correspondence. It felt so natural and organic and beautiful. Not a huge fan of romance, but this relationship was just so well done. The prose was a bit heavy at times, but I really think it worked for the story. Two highly intelligent beings would likely speak in this way, so it felt natural that the language extended to the exposition as well. If purple prose is a turn off, this book might not be for you... Hardcore sci-fi readers might be disappointed if you love world building and explanations -- a lot of the world was intentionally left vague. All we really know is that Red works for the Agency, a technotopia focused on an orderly and uniform singularity, while Blue works for Garden, which appears to be a hive-mind that makes up organic matter. The two organizations are in a time war, braiding and unbraiding strands of time in order to ensure futures that match their ideals. This novella was just so clever. The foreshadowing was woven into the story perfectly. There is so much symbolism and self-reference within the story that it definitely requires a second or even third read through. I definitely recommend this to readers who want a clever and poetic story (especially if you are looking for a f/f romance or anything that has to do with time travel and rich descriptions of alternate histories).
This is actually three and a half stars. I'm a little conflicted about this book, but I liked it overall. The writing is gorgeous, and I loved the strong female characters. Both beautiful and brutal, they are the warriors we all wish we could be. However, I didn't like how the beginning of the book just jumped right into the action without any backstory to go with it. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the story. Had I been more slowly introduced to Red and Blue and the worlds they live in, I think it would have been better. And while I like the writing a lot, some of the sections in the book are hard to comprehend. I know that sounds foolish, but I think you'll understand if you read this book. Overall, I would recommend it.
Where to begin? So much happens within the pages of this short novel. However it’s slow pace made it difficult for me to pick the book up every day. This story was interesting, but too slow to hold my attention long. I’m usually interested in poetic writing when it comes to novels, yet it’s poetic language felt forced and not natural. Not natural, you may ask? It’s unnatural dialogue for its character could have been purposefully used to display the futuristic side of the story. Nonetheless, I could not see past the novels language/dialogue to enjoy the story being told. The cover of the novel is very simplistic, clean, and eye catching. The cover does have symbolic meaning to the body of the text. However, it adds a mysterious aura for readers to wonder exactly how birds relate to the title of the novel.
First I want to explain I was majorly confused yet really into the synopsis, the cover, and the brief little sneak peek. But then it arrived and I was just not too sure anymore, it was one of those yay we got it but then I legit couldn’t recall a single thing I read on the spoiler or anything for that matter. And that is where this begins, Red and Blue are two confusing “lyrical” characters that literally have zero depth. The story has nothing for it, at least for me it didn’t because the entire time I read it I had zero clue what was going on because the overly flourish of words tries to be more then it should. I took my time and everything hoping beyond hope some smidge of this would stick and I’d be completely smitten but it lacked a lot for a story for me.
The cover is what really drew me to this book, then the story. Two point of views, Red and Blue. They are both on opposite sides of the war and communicate through letters. The letters were interesting to read and in the beginning were filled with bantering. As the book progresses, the relationship dynamics change and so the feelings in the letters change as well. There are also small little chapters of them seeing each other in different time periods which was pretty interesting, which I thought could of gone further. Overall, the book is wrapped around their relationship more than I liked which I think moves away from the sci-fi aspect, at least for me anyways. Which made me enjoy it more so.
This is a beautifully written and poetic experience masquerading as a novella. This won’t be for everyone: even though this is a time travel story, at its core This Is How You Lose the Time War is a poetic story about love. “Wars are dense with causes and effects, calculations and strange attractors, and all the more so are wars in time.” This Is How You Lose the Time War is a character-driven story; it is all about Red and Blue and their unlikely correspondences through time and space. There is much that you can glean from these letters about the world of this story, bits that you can piece together into a tableau. But this is not a book you strive to understand or pick apart. Its beauty lies in the purple prose, the story within two characters on opposing sides of war. “Adventure works in any strand – it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.” This is How You Lose the Time War by Max GladstoneThe adventures both Red and Blue take captivated me. There isn’t one reality but multiple; strands and threads of possibilities woven together as opposing sides undo the work. We see Pompeii and Atlantis and countless other places in time, missions to save or doom the people depending on the desired outcomes. As a person who loves worldbuilding, I will admit I struggled at first. I had no idea what was going on, but I had the feeling this is a book you are just supposed to experience. You won’t understand the logistics of time travel (how they move downstrand and up), how the war started, or why the Garden and Agency are at odds. Those things really aren’t the point. My recommendation is to just relax and let the poetic writing flow over you. This is a story to be experienced, and one I ultimately enjoyed. ARC provided by the publisher via Bookish First in exchange for my honest review. Quotations are taken from an uncorrected proof and subject to change upon final publication.
This was a very quick read and the writing style was different and one that I haven’t come across yet. Although it was unique, I’m not sure that I liked it all that well. The book has two point of views, Red and Blue. They are both on opposite sides of the war and so their communication is done through letters. The letters were interesting to read and in the beginning were filled with banter. As the book progresses, their relationship dynamic changes and so the feelings in the letters change as well. There are also small little chapters of them seeing each other in different time periods which was pretty interesting. Overall, the book is more poetic/centered around a relationship than I would have liked which I think takes away from the sci-fi aspect, at least for me anyways. Either way it was still a decent read! Arc was provided by publisher through a giveaway. All opinions are my own.
This is How You Lose the Time War is poetry disguised as science fiction, a lyrical masterclass in how a story can successfully take a sweeping span of times, places and elements that only briefly appear once and link them into the larger braid that orbits around the nexus of two people. The alternating points of view work very well, and offer a balanced look into the psyche of both Blue and Red. We open with Red discovering a letter from Blue, then we see the letter, then we see Blue discovering the response, we read the response, and so on. The characters are all that link the many settings and time frames these exchanges take place in. Some historical, some fantastical, some lovely and some brutal, it really captures the feeling of the agents' roaming. Likewise, the letters are delivered in every fashion imaginable - in the embers of a dying planet, the rings of a tree, the movements of a bee, the taste of a berry. If you enjoy the diverse array of settings, the brief glimpses into a life, I'd also recommend Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore, and fans of Doctor Who will appreciate the time travel/cause-and-effect concepts. There are a lot of smart references packed into This is How You Lose the Time War, probably tons that I missed, but they're like a cherry on top - if you notice and understand them, it adds to it, but if not, it won't detract from what is one of the most unique concepts I've ever read.
This story is not like my usual reads, it is unlike anything I have read before. A whole new way of world than the one I know that made for quite an enjoyable read. The story flowed well and had me guessing at times what could happen next. A slow building romance that is mainly communicated through messages at various points of time. These messages are hidden that only either red or blue can find that have been left for each other even though they are on the opposites sides of the war. One is on the side of technology while the other is on the side of environment. This is a science fiction time travel masterpiece. I would recommend this book to others to read and while this is the first book I have read from this author I hope it will not be the last.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a very descriptive, unique and beautifully written story about two rival time travelers — Red and Blue — who end up falling in love through the letters they exchange (oftentimes in very discrete and creative ways). The characters were well developed through their narrative and the storyline was interesting but I felt that the novel was lacking in some ways. Throughout the book I was curious about their backgrounds, Red and Blue’s history, the details of the worlds and the factions each was fighting for and ultimately why they were at war. I would have liked some more “meat” to the story even though I suspect that was not the intention of the authors. The ending was good and left me more satisfied with the story. Overall I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Okay, this one was just meh for me. I could not get into it at all! The love story between Red and Blue was nice and surprising but it just fell flat for me. I had very little invested into this world and their building romance was not enough to draw me into it. I liked the time travel aspect with the jumping from such two extremes. It was fun and unique but I wish the authors would have done so much more with it. It had some promise but did not deliver. The writing was beautiful and the premise was strong, I just wish they did more with it.