Sworn enemies exchange love notes in the sci-fi romance ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’

October 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 12, 2019

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a new novella that offers a science-fictional update on Romeo and Juliet.

The star-crossed lovers here are Red and Blue, specially equipped and trained time warriors. They respectively champion the Agency and Garden, organizations that are attempting to ensure that their and only their timelines — or strands, in the book’s terminology — survive. When Red, a hyper-advanced cyborg, catches the eye of organically inclined Blue, the latter sends a covert message that launches a romance conducted entirely through letters.

These are not letters or messages as you or I might conceive. Here, Red discovers one while embedded in a Mongol army:

Ten years into deep cover, having joined the horde, proven her worth, and achieved the place for which she strove, she feels suited to this war. 

She has suited herself to it. 

Others draw back from her in respect and fear as she scans the piled logs for signs of rot. Her roan snorts, stamps the earth. Red ungloves and traces the lumber with her fingertips, log by log, ring by ring, feeling each one’s age. 

She stops when she finds the letter. 


The others gather round: What has disturbed her so? An omen? A curse? Some flaw in their lumberjackery? 

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

The letter begins in the tree’s heart. Rings, thicker here and thinner there, form symbols in an alphabet no one present knows but Red. The words are small, sometimes smudged, but still ten years per line of text, and many lines. Mapping roots, depositing or draining nutrients year by year, the message must have taken a century to craft. Perhaps local legends tell of some fairy or frozen goddess in these woods, seen for an instant, then gone. Red wonders what expression she wore as she placed the needle. 

She memorizes the message. She feels it ridge by ridge, line by line, and performs a slow arithmetic of years. 

Her eyes change. The men nearby have known her for a decade but have never seen her look like this. 

One asks, “Should we throw it away?” 

She shakes her head. It must be used. She does not say, Or else another might find it and read what I have read. 


Two weeks later, the planks lie shattered around the fallen walls of a city still burning, still weeping. Progress gallops on, and blood remains behind. 

These passages are clever, but I found most of the letters cloying. For example, the message in the harvested tree begins thus:

My perfect Red, 

How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored? Perhaps you’ll tell me once you’re finished with this strand. 

The thought that you could have trapped me (stranded me, perhaps? Oh dear, sorry-not-sorry) is so delicious that I confess myself quite overcome. 

I had other major issues with the book. I found little difference between the protagonists’ voices, which made the story kind of run together. And I was never convinced that the characters should or would become enamored of each other; yes, it’s flattering to be admired, but… Well, I just didn’t get it.

I suppose the romance between these two women is just that — a love story, one dressed up in the trappings of science fiction. As such, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but others may find it more entertaining.

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