I will be the first to admit the title of This Is How You Lose The Time War was what originally drew to this book. Why yes I do want to learn how to lose a time war (although I probably could without much help). Turns out there is a fantastic book hiding under that clever title.
Technically the time war in question is actually a war fought across Space Time. Two groups of beings travel across multiple dimensions and up and down timelines fighting to advance their own goals. One group works to create a universe that is based on technology and the other a universe based on what can only be called bio-tech but that really doesn’t do it justice. The tech group is lead by an enigmatic being called The Commandant and the other is lead by The Garden. The main characters though are two agents in the time war: Red who works for Commandant and Blue who works for the Garden.
Interesting fact about time wars, its a huge faux paus to meet your opponent in the time war. The way it works is you change something in one or more timelines then your opponents either tries to preempt you efforts or goes in and tries to fix it afterwards. So our characters don’t meet exactly but Blue leaves a letter for Red. This opens up a correspondence across space time in which the opponents slowly come to respect then to love each other.
The descriptions of the worlds these two pass through are fantastic. Timelines where Atlantis is a space station. Another where London looks like something out of a steampunk novel. Another with a World War II Eastern Front inhabited by zombies. They flash by in endless succession with only casual mentions which makes them all the more tantalizing. The endless variety itself is wondrous.
Then there are the letters. They can’t just write letters so they encode their letters in unique ways. Red is serving as a warrior in Genghis Khan’s army and she “sees” a letter from Blue encoded in the rings of a tree being cut down to make siege engines. In another tea leaves in the bottom of Blue’s tea cup in Steampunk London reveal a message from Red. All the while they are being followed by something that is reconstructing their letters as they destroy them.
One thing I’m always curious about in time travel books is how the author pulls off time travel. Gabaldon uses magic stones, Crichton used worm holes. There are all kinds of ways to create fictional time travel but El-Mohtar doesn’t use any of them. Space Time Travel in this book is just something the characters do. It is so woven into their identity that it doesn’t have to be explained. They walk “up thread” into the past or “step sideways” into another thread.
That’s another thing I love, how El-Mohtar plays with identity in this book. Its a little unclear what Red, Blue, The Garden or the Commandant are. Sometimes they appear to be human other times they don’t. They change identities to fulfill their missions all the while relying on biological or technological enhancements that also remain unclear. Even though Red and Blue are always referred to as she/her you are never really sure what it even means as if to say “when you exist outside of space and time your identity isn’t constructed the same as everyone else.”