In science fiction everything is possible. You can paint your canvas any which way you can. Do it wrong and you find yourself in exposition hell – books suffer from this far less than moving pictures – mired in inconsistent world building and plot holes. But do it right and the angel choir sings praise (maybe even literally, it is up to you) and the readers are drawn to your masterful creation. Birth, death, resurrection, restart (nobody knows nothing about time travel), duplication, transformation: you name it; you invent it. It’s possible.
This is How You Lose the Time War falls into the latter I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate category. We start in the end stages of a battle somewhere in the future. Red, an agent of change in a constant battle between two factions in a bigger time war, holds a corpse who has a crude exoskeleton, and which is no match to her own weapons and armour, which fold into her making her resemble something like a woman. Her counterpart in the book is Blue. The factions are called Agency (Red) and Garden (Blue). What their aims and goals are is never explained, because, quite frankly, it is irrelevant. Moreover, it seems there exists a number of time threads, ie, alternative realities or timelines or something that are constantly evolving through intricate and very long-term planning by either of the factions, and which are usually countered by equally or even more intricate and long-term planning from the opposition.
This punching and counter-punching sets the rhythm quite nicely. First it’s Red whose side fails, then Blue, then Red again, etc. Red gets the first message from Blue, a letter which was left on the blasted ground. It does not belong. She picks it up. There are instructions on it: Burn before reading. After a careful consideration she does so and for a fleeting moment before the letter turns to ash she is able to read it.
Then there is a seeker who follows both the protagonists and retrieves the destroyed letters ever so lyrically – the book packs so much imagination and beauty in these moments of information retrieval. Later, we find out the identity of the seeker. The letters start as an acknowledgement of a foe and get better while both parties practise the art of writing. After a while the respect turns to friendship and, finally, to love.
This is How You Lose the Time War is a series of love letters in a time of a time war set in an exquisitely realised science fiction world in which every sentence is carefully crafted and a joy to read.
Finally, the powers that be get suspicious about how much Red and Blue’s path cross and decide to end things. What happens next does show that – even after betrayal and sacrifice – love, too, makes everything possible.