Book Review

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

Co-written by two award-winning writers, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epic love story spanning time and space.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant 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, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

This is How You Lose the Time War is an intriguing novella that sees two agents on opposing sides in an ongoing war strike up an unlikely correspondence with each other.  Their letters initially have an admiring yet playful tone to them with comments along the lines of “This is how we’ll win“, but as they begin get to know each other, they become increasingly fond of each other, gradually becoming more flirtatious before the true depth of their feelings becomes apparent.  I love that Max Goldstone wrote all of Red’s letters and Amal El-Mohtar wrote all of Blue’s.  I think that this adds a wonderful touch to the narrative. I’ve often wondered how co-authoring works, and this is a lovely insight into that process.

I have to admit that I struggled a little with the tale initially.  The reader is thrown in at the deep end with no preamble and neither the setting nor the purpose of the war is explored or explained.  Part of me wonders if this is deliberate and an indication that war has no purpose and that’s there’s no way to justify the inevitable casualties. It may be that those engaged in such conflicts don’t always know the true purpose of their missions, and Red and Blue are illustrative of those soldiers deployed as required by their superiors with information shared on a need-to-know basis.  Perhaps it’s merely for the sake of brevity.  Whatever the reason, those who like to know the why behind such scenarios may find This is How You Lose the Time War a little frustrating in this respect.  Despite this, I was soon entirely caught up in the narrative as Red and Blue begin their correspondence, and it was this element that kept me gripped throughout as I wanted to know what would happen and in particular whether they’d get caught and what would happen to them if they did.

I think that This is How You Lose the Time War has a lot to say about acceptance and equality without being overbearing.  Red and Blue are on opposing sides and while the nature of their politics and beliefs / religion etc. isn’t entirely clear, they find a way to overcome their differences when all they have in common is that they are fighting in the same war.  Both seem to identify as female, although there does seem to be some fluidity in that regard, with Red adopting a masculine form for one mission.  For me, the overarching message is that love crosses all boundaries and that what’s on the outside doesn’t necessarily define us, and this seems apt in so many ways right now.

This is a wonderful read, and I do recommend that you stick with it if – like me – you find yourself perplexed at the outset.  It’s not always an easy read, but it’s one that I found engaging due to the unusual relationship developing between Red and Blue.  It’s beautifully told and utterly unique. 

This is How You Lose the Time War was published in 2019 by Jo Fletcher Books and is available to purchase in paperback, eBook, and audio formats.


  1. great review! i completely agree that at first, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end, but it’s still so incredibly absorbing. this book is so underrated; i wish it got more attention!

    1. 100% this! After the initial struggle, I became so immersed in the burgeoning romance between Red and Blue. It really does deserve more attention than it has received.

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