Well, I don’t really know how to review this one. This is How You Lose the Time War is a unique experience, and I think most people will either love it or hate it. I was kind of in the middle: I was able to appreciate a lot of things about it, though it didn’t completely work for me.
The premise is fairly simple: two time-traveling operatives on opposite sides of a war fall in love through letters. Red works for the Agency and Blue for the Garden, and while the letters start as some slightly bored taunting between rivals on missions, they soon turn into something more and eventually they must decide what is more important: each other, or the time war.
The novella itself is a bit more complicated, however. About half of it is epistolary, consisting of the letters from Red and Blue; the rest is the set up for the letters, describing the tasks these agents are performing on behalf of their respective groups. A lot of details are left vague.
The style of the writing is what makes it unique. The best way I can describe it is that it reads like it’s a short story, just at novella length. This makes sense because the authors are noted for their short fiction, but for me it made it hard to get into (the beginning especially felt a bit choppy and repetitive). It was awhile into the story before I could really differentiate between Blue and Red; while that may make sense thematically, it is a bit confusing for the reader. There are also many cultural references, everything from that Eiffel65 song to Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Many readers will enjoy the wry humor of these, but I wonder if the story becomes confusing if you don’t get the references.
Overall, the story is very philosophical, exploring what it means to be human, in spite of the fact that one main character is a kind of android and the other was grown in a pod.
The Garden and the Agency each seem to represent one side of several dichotomies of human nature: natural vs. artificial and artistic vs. analytical. Even in terms of time, the Garden seemed to be more of the past, and the Agency more of the future, although that is just my impression.
I do love the trope of characters falling in love through letters; some of the things Red and Blue write are really touching. Even though I am not a time-traveling spy, I was struck by how universal is the vulnerability that comes with falling in love. Falling in love is always a risk, though the stakes may be lower for us than for Red and Blue.
While I found the story thought-provoking, I did struggle a bit to get into it. So if you like fast plots and action, I would suggest you skip this one. If you enjoy a clever turn of phrase, atmospheric settings, and a lot of thinking in your sci-fi, this one might be for you.