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

Title: This is How You Lose the Time War
Author: Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication Date: July 16, 2019
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance
Rating: ☕☕☕☕☕ (5/5)
Content Warning: (spoilers!) highlight to view {War, war ideation, death, betrayal, espionage}

So let me tell you when I discovered this unique gem of a book: I took a break from social media around the end of the year to the beginning of January. Riddled by some sort of a low personal episode, I decided to pick this up and quickly go through it. I read it slowly (too slowly, I would like to think), for consecutive nights soaking in hot baths and in between glasses of wine. I recorded myself reading the letters. I cried in several moments of the book because the words just hurt and they felt too real. This book was heartbreaking in its beauty. And let me tell you why:

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


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.
(via Goodreads)


This is How You Lose the Time War tells the story of two agents – Red and Blue – from opposing factions that are in the race of controlling the flow of time. The story begins with Red receiving a taunting letter from Blue – which kick-started a long history of letters exchanged in the most creative and unexpected of ways. From being sworn-enemies, to confidantes – and eventually, falling prey to passion neither of them can escape that made them question their missions and their very existence.

There’s this kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? You could leave me for five years, you could return never – and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.

I know I’ve said it time and time again but Time War really ruined me. This novella felt like a love story of epic proportions – and it is. The way Red and Blue create and send their letters? Come on! The deliberate care each of them makes these? Unbelievable and I am in awe. Imagine growing a tree so that when you cut it, there’s the letter in full view written through manipulating its rings over the years. Imagine a letter that is written in seeds and only when you ingest them would you be able to read them, projecting imagery and feelings to form words in your head. Imagine a letter appearing in tea leaves, while the other is enjoying afternoon tea in a restaurant in the golden era of Paris. Imagine a letter wrought from destruction and designed to only be seen at the very end of a civilization, right when the volcanoes erupt to destroy everything (btw: that Atlantis nod and the handling of how destroying it is a necessity are such genius in their own way). The way Time War was structured is so good and creative. I haven’t read many epistolary novels in the past but this is, by far, the one that shoot straight to the top for me There is a specific beauty in its flow that, though complex, makes me want to read it over and over again just to savor it.

Time War also makes a very unique and revolutionary take on time travel stories and romances. Natalie Zutter’s Den of Geek Article breaks down how Time War sets itself apart from its peers. In this story, no one ever waits for the other; instead, “they seek each other out” – and that makes a whole world of difference. Both Red and Blue are consistently on the move, actively working on each of their assignments as well as carefully laying traps and sending letters for the other to find. All this while trying to avoid being caught by their respective factions because doing so would spell death (or worse) for each of them. It was a thrilling thing to watch out for specific tangents in the strands they work in and expecting that they meet. And though this thing is so sparse, it creates another layer of buzz while reading it.

Sometimes when you write, you say things I stopped myself from saying.

In terms of characterization, Red and Blue couldn’t be further from the same. Red is a product of a cyberpunk-ish kind of world (“Agency”) – a machinery marvel. Blue, on the other hand, was “grown”. Part of an ecosystem called the “Garden”, Blue favors deep-covers, sometimes taking a whole lifetime to infiltrate and influence time. Red’s approach is abrupt, immediate. Blue’s is subtle yet powerful. A battle of efficiency versus effectivity, both are at the top of their game. Though they both use she/her pronouns, for some reason, it took me a long time to clue in on both Red and Blue’ gender (or if they even have a specific one) because, in the course of the story, it really doesn’t matter (which is refreshing to read).

Despite the length, the plot is tight and it managed to explore and flesh out the world of both the Agency and the Garden with such amazing depth. Usually, time travel stories are hard to describe in very little words because you need to explain and make readers understand how it works for them to be able to make sense and visualize the logistics of the story (time travel stories, historically, are tricky) – and amazingly enough, Time War managed to do that in roughly 200 pages. One story highlight that I want to point out is the Seeker – a constant presence felt throughout the story – which for me, is the best (genius!) story device in this book. And when the identity of the seeker was revealed? Oh my God. It made reading this book a whole new and different experience. This the sort of book that transforms every time you read it – and it was brilliant.

P.S. I write to you in stings, Red. But this is me, the truth of me, as I do so: broken open by the act, in the palm of you hand, dying.

Even after every little thing that I mentioned previously in this post, personally, the thing that shone the most for me while reading this is THE writing. The writing in Time War is divine. The little things. The subtle way they show their affection to each other (e.g., singing a letter with “Yours” take on a deeper meaning). The declarations that were too intense and heavy. The prose is precious and to beautiful… and reading them made me want to eat them all up (pun intended, LOL if you get it) because they are just so breathtaking in their elegance and meaning. It’s almost funny how the letters started with taunting, clearly finding the other spy amusing, and how it escalated quickly to endless yearning. It hurts my heart just reading about them. You wan’t enemies-to-lovers excellence with extreme pining and yearning? Read this book.

In conclusion

By the the time I am writing this post, I have already read it multiple times – trying to go back and savor it. This is How You Lose the Time War is the sort of book that comes one-in-a hundred for me. I would’ve stayed even if it’s just for the writing… but the story and its characters? They are GOLD. A glowing, solid 5 out of 5. While I acknowledge that this is not for everybody, believe me when I say that This is How You Lose The Time War is up there in my favorite books of all time – both in terms of writing AND story. This book is just so breathtakingly good (I can’t even count now how many times I used these words while writing this, forgive me) that I won’t ever stop recommending it. And oh, it won the Hugo (2020), Nebula (2019) and Locus (2020) awards for Best Novella. If that’s not saying something, I don’t know what will. (Read Linda Codega’s Love Letter to This is How You Lose The Time War HERE.)

And so I leave you with this: GIVE THIS BOOK A CHANCE.

(Read my This is How You Lose The Time War Reading Diary HERE.)



Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was wound in a vein. She stained the page herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true. And the writing hurt. But butterfly wings break when touched. Red knows her own weaknesses as well as any one – she presses too hard, breathes what she would embrace, tears what she would touch to her teeth.

“I love writing in aftertaste.”

“I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll write in waves. In skies. In my heart. You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.

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Auditor by profession and a 'round-the-clock geek 🤓 from the 🇵🇭 and currently based in Belfast. I'm a coffee-holic INTJ with an unhealthy obsession with books and stationery. I word-vomit over at Twitter and posts book pics at Instagram: @pagesandcc . I also blog at .

4 thoughts on “Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

    1. Ah, I would love to answer your question here but people might see the spoiler and I don’t want that. I hope you could DM me in Insta or Twitter so we could discuss. It was so genius. 🙂


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