This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
In this extraordinary novella, two warring factions -the Garden and the Agency – are pitted against each other over control of existence. Their time traveling operatives slip upthread and downthread, influencing history in the making and remaking, braiding their own strands of time to unmake what the other has accomplished, or to move forward their own grand plans.
Each side has a top agent, valued for their subtlety, their focus and their ruthlessness. Known only as “Red” and “Blue”, respectively, they are vaguely aware of each other’s influence and successes, and eventually strike up a clandestine correspondence – first a kind of competitive trash talking but also an acknowledgement of professional admiration. Although such interaction would be construed as treason, the two continue by to communicate via arcane letters, and eventually their relationship deepens.
This is How You Lose the Time War is, ultimately, a love story; one told through words rather than actions. Because of the shifting, unanchored, transitory setting of both place and time, and the ever changing physicality of the main characters, we are left with only their devotion to each other – first in competition and later in affection – to moor us. It is a beautiful construct, allowing for luscious, poetic prose that does not feel contrived or disingenuous because of the effort necessary to express it.
You wrote of being in a village upthread together, living as friends and neighbors do, and I could have swallowed this valley whole and still not have sated my hunger for the thought. Instead I wick the longing into thread, pass it through your needle eye, and sew it into hiding somewhere beneath my skin, embroider my next letter to you one stitch at a time.
In this tale, empires rise and fall, suns explode, armies are decimated, ideas are unleashed (or extinguished), landscapes are toppled, all within a paragraph, with no more weight than sipping tea in a London teahouse or distracting a wandering attention with a winsome smile or meting out the success or failure of a quickening womb. It doesn’t matter that both Red and Blue are (at their native state) female, or that they feel no remorse or conscience at their actions, knowing that each death there is rebirth, that nothing is static and all is fluid and impermanent.
What matters is that two lives which have for untold time and throughout a myriad of possibilities been nothing but soldiers in an unfathomable war, always alone, always focused on the task given, are suddenly given voice, the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, visions, pasts, beauty, philosophies, musings, wonder, and to be heard and appreciated for who they are rather than for what they can do. Although we cannot fathom their existence, we understand their longing.
In trying to describe this novella, I said it was the most luxurious quick read I have ever experienced; quick not because I read it fast – that would have been a travesty – but because I could not put it down. Beautifully realized and beautifully rendered, This is How You Lose the Time War is a unique treasure.