Literacy 2024: Book 3: This Is How You Lose the Time War

A sci-fi fantasy love story across the multiverse

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

Red and Blue are elite agents on opposing factions working across the entirety of time and space to shape the multiverse to their own ends. At the end of a particularly epic battle, Red finds an enigmatic message from her adversary. This begins an increasingly elaborate correspondence between the two, with each message taking bizarre forms that require years or even centuries to compose.


  • Imaginative world-building without exposition. Each section describes fantastic futures or complete alternate histories in just a few pages.
  • Concepts like “upthread,” “downthread,” and “strands” become clear without ever needing explicit explanation.
  • The format is repeated without ever becoming too repetitive; you get the sense of anticipation that each character feels as they wait for the next message.
  • Gets the emotional beats right and reminds the reader of the universality of falling in love โ€” the stages of wariness, excitement, infatuation, passion, comfort, and (sometimes) despair.
  • Many evocative passages that emphasize feeling more than description; you get a sense of apocalypse, cruelty, peace, nature, and so on without belaboring the scene setting.


  • Often feels over-written and florid, as the language often seems to dance around an idea instead of making it clear. I ended up skimming over much of the book, because the metaphors and abstractions failed to land more often than not.
  • The writing was so poetic, while the settings were often so fantastic, that it became impossible to tell what was metaphor and what was literal.
  • The attempts at jokes, references, and wordplay felt corny in the way of very, very smart people trying to be funny.
  • The characters are practically omnipotent, and the described worlds so fantastic and cataclysmic, that there’s no sense of stakes for the characters or boundaries to their universe. Stuff happens, but we can’t ever anticipate what the implications might be or how dire or permanent the situation is.
  • I never got the sense of why or how characters fall in love. The beats of a romantic relationship feel familiar and genuine, and I can see the characters reacting to each stage of the relationship, but they’re moments that feel dictated by the authors instead of motivated by genuine connection.

Overall, this feels like a very well-written and well-thought-out story that just isn’t for me. It’s excellent at establishing mood and conjuring images of fantastic alternate realities. The overall plot uses time travel effectively to give an idea of a romance that is so fundamental and so epic that it is both fated to happen and also threatened at every moment across multiple timelines. But these characters are archetypes more than genuine personalities, so the story on the whole seemed to be aimed at readers who love the idea of an epic, universe-shaking love, romance for romance’s sake, instead of one driven by the characters themselves.

2 thoughts on “Literacy 2024: Book 3: This Is How You Lose the Time War”

  1. What struck me about this novel is how it had such a distinct writing style and that the less you knew about it, the more exciting the book was to read. One of those books that gets passed around saying “just read this, trust me”. It worked out well in this case.

    The other book like that I enjoyed even more is qntm’s “There Is No Antimemetics Division”. It’s one of the best complete works to come out of the SCP Foundation, a collaborative writing project. I won’t say anything more other than “you should read this” unless you need some convincing. (There’s a new video adaptation on Youtube that’s fairly well done but it works much better as a book.)

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