This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had to read this twice to figure out how I felt about it, which is very unusual for me. The first time, the sheer overall beauty of it left me overwhelmed and euphoric, and ready to proclaim this as The Best Thing Evah. But circumstances prevented me from writing that down right away, which is just as well. As the days passed and the euphoria faded, I was left with the nagging idea that I had better read it again to pin down my thoughts about it, which I have done. Now I can see, a little more clearly, the strengths and flaws. I realize a great many people still want to proclaim this novella The Best Thing Evah, but I cannot.
I will readily admit that the writing is beautiful--the turns of phrase, the choice of words, the flow of the prose, is just lovely. In many places it's more of a prose poem than an actual story (which is also a bit of a drawback). Nevertheless, this shows off two writers at the height of their powers, and the transitions between the authors is seamless. I have no idea if one author wrote Red's chapters and the other wrote Blue's, or how the disparate styles were blended, and that in and of itself is a triumph. But the second time through, even as I savored the writing (and resisted the urge to beat my head against the wall because I will never produce such prose at this), a gradual dissatisfaction started creeping in.
Finally, during the second read, I pinned down what was bothering me. The semi-epistolary style of writing (a great deal of Red's and Blue's characterization is revealed in the letters they send to each other) lends itself to a lush romantic fantasy, with a forbidden Romeo and Juliet style romance--or Roma and Juliet, since both characters identify as women. These are the best parts of the book, when the dreamy mythic feel of the language tries to take wing. If the authors had gone with this, I think they would have had a winner. Unfortunately, they chose to use the science fiction tropes of time travel and multiverses to underpin the worldbuilding, and for me, this absolutely did not work. Whenever they paused to explain Red's technological faction, the Agency, and how she is more of a cyborg than human (with gyroscopes in her gut), and how Blue was budded off from her biological faction Garden (which is a rather terrifying, Lovecraftian creation), the story came to a crashing halt. The two ideas simply didn't mesh. I use the term "science fantasy" to describe this, which in this case is an unfortunate oxymoron, because that's how this book made me feel.
Which is disappointing, because if they had made this book a straight fantasy, it would have been wonderful. The idea of an endless war, fought for so long and so hard that no one remembers who started it or why they're fighting, and the two agents from the opposing sides who trade letters and fall in love, would have made just as good a tale with no SF elements in it at all, as far as I'm concerned. It seems very much a misfire and a sadly wasted opportunity, which is why I can't rate it any higher.
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