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This Is How You Lose the Time War
Table of Contents
About The Book
“[An] exquisitely crafted tale...Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay...This short novel warrants multiple readings to fully unlock its complexities.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
From award-winning authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone comes an enthralling, romantic novel spanning time and space about two time-traveling rivals who fall in love and must change the past to ensure their future.
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandment 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, becomes something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean the death of each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win. 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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
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In the ashes of a dying world, Red finds a letter marked “Burn before reading. Signed, Blue.”
So begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents in a war that stretches through the vast reaches of time and space.
Red belongs to the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia. Blue belongs to Garden, a single vast consciousness embedded in all organic matter. Their pasts are bloody and their futures mutually exclusive. They have nothing in common—save that they’re the best, and they’re alone.
Now what began as a battlefield boast grows into a dangerous game, one both Red and Blue are determined to win. Because winning’s what you do in war. Isn’t it?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. As Red and Blue are executing their respective orders, they have their first exchange. Describe the warriors introduced in these first few opening challenges. Is one more dedicated to their cause than the other?
2. Red and Blue are sworn enemies in a timeless war and while they joke about poison, “PS. The Keyboard’s coated with slow-acting contact poison. You’ll be dead in an hour” (p. 30), they never use it. Why have they never tried to kill each other? Why do they continue to open the letters? Is it trust, or something else?
3. “Do I have you still… You could leave me for five years, you could return never—and I have to write the rest of this not knowing,” (page 42). There are physical limitations to the way Red and Blue choose to communicate. With the most advanced technology at their fingertips, why have they chosen to leave their messages in these unique mediums?
4. Blue writes a lot about Atlantis in one of her early letters. Discuss why this is a myth the authors choose to highlight and why Atlantis, of all places, recurs with the same result in every strand? Do you accept Red’s responding explanation?
5. There are many subtle pop-culture references made as Red and Blue move through time. Which references did you pick up on? Which were your favorites?
6. Red quotes “the prophets” several times. Who do you think the prophets are for warriors out of time? Based on the quotes she recites, do you believe they are considered prophets here in the 21st century?
7. Blue speaks very little about the opposition except to say, “The thought of your disembodied network repulses me, but I look at you, Red, and see much of myself; a desire to be apart, sometimes, to understand who I am without the rest,” (page 72). What do we know of Blue and Red’s organizations? Would you consider them communities? What are the differences between the two?
8. Blue makes a dramatic and risky move on page 46 to save Red in the past. This is early in Blue and Red’s relationship. Discuss Blue’s decision to act and why this moment is significant.
9. The seeker appears at the end of every chapter, chasing letters and collecting evidence. Who is the seeker? What is their purpose? What is their role in this time war?
10. Discuss how Red and Blue each come to realize they are in love. What made it apparent to you? Does it happen more easily for one than the other?
11. There is little proof that the shadow Red senses is real. What proof does she offer? Sometimes even she does not completely believe her theory. What makes you believe or doubt her?
12. Red and Blue each interact with their leaders once through the book. What are the notable differences between The Commandant and Garden? Who would you rather work for?
13. Red’s final letter to Blue is extremely complex. Discuss its many layers and her decision to write a letter within the poison. What would you write if you were in her position?
14. Why does Blue open Red’s poison letter after Red warns her that it is a trap? Describe the tone of her dying letter. Is it a betrayal?
15. Red makes a very risky move that will have dire consequences if things don’t align perfectly. How many ways could her plan go wrong? Discuss Red’s mindset before, during and at the end of this impossible mission.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Every move in the Time War is carefully calculated and chosen for it’s the far-reaching ramifications. Even chaos is purposefully created. Discuss how difficult it would be to choose the right moments to change. How does this compare to war as we know it?
2. Letters were once the only form of communication and people had lasting relationships with their pen pals. Discuss how communication has changed and how that affects relationships. Are technological advances an improvement?
3. Imagine you are an agent fighting in this Time War, dancing along the braids. What would it be like to see all the different strands? Would you like to experience all of time in the way Red and Blue do? What kind of agent would you be?
- Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press (March 17, 2020)
- Length: 224 pages
- ISBN13: 9781534430990
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Raves and Reviews
* “[An] exquisitely crafted tale…. Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay… This short novel warrants multiple readings to fully unlock its complexities.”
– Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
"If Iain M. Banks and Gerard Manley Hopkins had ever been able to collaborate on a science fiction project, well, it wouldn’t be half as much fun as this novella. There is all the pleasure of a long series, and all the details of a much larger world, presented in miniature here.”
– Kelly Link
"This book has it all: treachery and love, lyricism and gritty action, existential crisis and space-opera scope, not to mention time traveling superagents. Gladstone's and El-Mohtar's debut collaboration is a fireworks display from two very talented storytellers."
– Madeline Miller, Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction
“Seditious and seductive, lush and lustrous, allusive and elusive, THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR is one of those rare stories where one struggles to decide whether to heap more praise upon its clever structure and prose or its brilliant ideas and characters. Never mind ... sit back and let it wind its way into your mind, until, with a start, you realize that you no longer know where the story ends and you start.”
– Ken Liu author of The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
“Lyrical and vivid and bittersweet. An absolutely lovely read from two talented writers.”
– Ann Leckie, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Ancillary Justice
“An intimate and lyrical tour of time, myth and history, with a captivating conversation between characters—and authors. Read it.”
– New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi
"This Is How You Lose the Time War is rich and strange, a romantic tour through all of time and the multiverse, and you shouldn’t miss a moment.”
– Martha Wells, Hugo Award-winning author of The Murderbot Diaries
“A time travel adventure that has as much humanity, grace, and love as it has temporal shenanigans, rewriting history, and temporal agents fighting to the death. Two days from now, you've already devoured it.”
– Ryan North, New York Times Bestselling and Eisner Award winning author of How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide For The Stranded Time Traveler
“Poetry, disguised as genre fiction. I read several sections out loud — this is prose that wants to be more than read. It wants to be heard and tasted.”
– Kelly Sue DeConnick, author of Captain Marvel
"A twisting, sapphic time travel fantasy love story that never stops surprising: El-Mohtar and Gladstone have written the ultimate in enemies-to-lovers romance.”
– Booklist, Starred Review
“Seditious and seductive, lush and lustrous, allusive and elusive, THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR is one of those rare stories where one struggles to decide whether to heap more praise upon its clever structure and prose or its brilliant ideas and characters.”
—Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Tenderness, danger, daring, wit — Time War has them all... In other words, these pages are strewn with myriad delights.
– Nisi Shawl
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