We never learn how long the war between the Agency and the Garden has been going on, or even how it started. All we know is that Red and Blue have been racing up and down and across time to fight for their side. The two might have been implacable enemies forever if Blue and Red hadn’t started leaving messages for each other. One of these letters, labeled “burn before reading,” appears at the beginning of Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s kaleidoscopic novel, This is How You Lost the Time War.
It isn’t until much later in This is How You Lose the Time War that we learn the differences between the Agency and the Garden. The Agency is more mechanistic and industrial. The Garden is organic and thinks very, very long term. But we never learn what the end goals are for these organization–which means that all our focus can be on Red and Blue and their growing relationship. At first, their messages are more signs of recognition and acknowledgements of their cleverness. Later, the messages become more elaborate, involving letters written into a particular tree that will be chopped down by an invading Mongol horde or coded into sumac seeds that need to be ingested in a certain sequence.
These later messages serve bring Red and Blue closer. As agents adrift in time, on their own for the most part, the letters are a way for them to connect with someone who understands their singular lives. Sure, their language is occasionally baroque and Blue and Red like to show off their clever vocabularies. I didn’t mind, being a word nerd myself. The elaborate language and literary references, oddly enough, served to ground Red and Blue’s relationship in terms I could understand. Blue and Red are Romeo and Juliet, even if they’re an over-powered AIs (Red) or a constantly shifting organic consciousness (Blue). In the end, they’re star-crossed lovers caught between warring “families,” who have to come up with something unexpected and brilliant in order to survive.
Once I adjusted to the writing style and gave up on learning exactly what the war was about, I ended up really enjoying This is How You Lose the Time War. (I really need to learn how to stop forcing my expectations on books and go with the flow.) I loved the way that the story bounced around space and time and I adored watching the relationship develop between Blue and Red. The plot of this book is nothing short of brilliant. I would definitely recommend this for readers who love time-travel stories and for readers who like (very) unconventional love stories.