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

This Is How You Lose the Time War is a love story across the battlegrounds of time, sci-fi turned into an epistolary romance. Red, an agent of the Commandant, finds a letter bearing the instruction ‘Burn before reading’. It is from Blue, an agent from the rival side, and it sparks off a correspondence, taunting to begin with, then growing into something more, something romantic and world-defying. Soon—or not, as this is the Time War—their bond is deep and discovery would be the end of them, and the question remains, who will win the war?

Written as a collaboration between two writers and featuring two protagonists known by colours and pronouns (both ‘she’), this is not your usual sci-fi story. Though there are teased out descriptions of the circumstances of each side, it is really focused on love and time and the myths and quirks of the multiverse. Packed with referenced despite its short length, it is a book that rewards its readers for spotting references and witty names as its protagonists do the same with each other. The creation of an aching love story told in improbably letters is an impressive feat, and the lyrical prose suits it well, particularly as the protagonists devolve into poetry and metaphor to try and explain their love across time through written words.

This is not your typical sci-fi, and those who aren’t fans of the genre should give the book a chance, though its unusual style and worldbuilding won’t be for everyone. It is forbidden love, Romeo and Juliet style, but with the complications of cause and effect and a war that seems insurmountable. It is playful and clever, almost unbearably short, and it is the pull of and between the two protagonists that brings it together.