Some of us fall in love through letters. Distance makes time zones become the enemy of voices saying “good night.” Letters fill the gaps and allow for the expression of emotion to an exactitude. Confessions and promises can be made between paragraphs and then activity becomes a distraction from unbearable anticipation until an answer arrives. These correspondences culminate in a long flirtation until someone professes their love and those words are reciprocated. Then, the letters transform into conversations about dreams and plans, a future that suddenly burns brightly.

With This Is How You Lose the Time War, authors Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar have created a celebration to the power of such missives and have made them more tantalizing as the human core of a science fiction novella set throughout space and time in realities both recognizable and severed into nonexistence. It is a stunning act of a joint imagination where the meaning of the letters evolves from a playful challenge between two professionals to wooing and then to love while the characters dance on alien worlds, walk the streets of Atlantis or watch London burn from the blitzkrieg. The letters propel the story because we want to hear those words between these characters, for we know they love each other before they do, but circumstances make it almost impossible for them to do so. There is a time war, after all, and they are rivals.

One is named Red, the other Blue, and these two women are the best there is at what they do. What they do is wage an epic battle up and down the timestream as special agents for the opposing forces of the time war. Red works for the Agency, a “post-singularity technotopia” that uses blunt force as its main strategy. Red slices and dices through assassinations and battlefields to carve out the reality the Agency desires. Causes and Effects are mapped out but they all seem reactive or nullified by its opponent, Garden. Garden is an organic lifeform that seeds time and space with its warriors, agents and subterfuges where they grow until it is their time in Garden’s grand design. Blue is one of Garden’s and the equal and opposite of Red, subtler in her violence but no less crafty.

Blue makes first contact with a letter Red finds while surveying the mass destruction she has caused on an interstellar battlefield. Blue moved like a shadow and where she was the missive remains. In it, Blue confesses her boredom with the time war and how all interactions had grown rote and victories assured until Red joined the fray. While she expresses her professional respect, Blue assures Red that the Agency will lose to Garden’s patience and guile. Red cannot help but be intrigued by this correspondence, deciding to leave it unreported so she can play this game with her new opponent. Both women hide their letters within themselves where the probes of their superiors will not find them. Fraternizing with the enemy would mean the death of both of them, but the war is too dull and the letters too delicious for either Red or Blue to stop. But the danger is not theoretical. Something pursues them and it is always steps away after the last sentence of a letter has been read.

Gladstone and El-Mohtar are unabashed in their cleverness, structuring the story where all action is secondary to the letters. Each chapter follows Red or Blue in a close third-person but what they are doing feels less important to the next letter they discover. Their voices are distinct and their transformations so savory that the authors smartly rely on the lifetimes of time travel story their readers have likely consumed as narrative shorthand. But to their great credit, they still build massively detailed worlds for the Agency and Garden as parental universes for Red and Blue. They are celestial versions of the Capulets and Montagues, with Red and Blue alternating the roles of Romeo and Juliet. There are even moments where you can’t help but wonder if one of the women is manipulating the other as part of the grander scheme. This only propels the reading so you can discover whether your affection has been betrayed or will be rewarded.

Having already won the Nebula Award and in the running for most of the major awards in science fiction, This Is How You Lose the Time War is being properly lauded. Even the gruffest need stories where love is the defining force that allows us to see beyond the repressive strictures of our societies to recreate ourselves as something better. But it will inspire unique affection in those of us who fell in love while separated by great distances with nothing but our words and faith to sustain our longing for the next contact.

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