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

A sci-fi fantasy love story across the multiverse

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

Synopsis
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.

Pros

  • 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 — 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Synopsis
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.

Literacy 2024: Book 2: Everyone on This Train is a Suspect

The sequel to Benjamin Stevenson’s metatextual murder mystery Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone

Book
Everyone on This Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson

Synopsis
After the success of his memoir Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, Ernest Cunningham is invited on a book tour with other crime and mystery writers, on board a luxury train traveling from the north end of Australia to the south. While he’s struggling to write a fictional follow-up to his previous book, one of the passengers is murdered, forcing him into another true-crime memoir.

Pros

  • Fast-moving and engaging; I hadn’t intended to jump into the sequel immediately, but it was available on Libby and I finished it in just a few sittings.
  • A bit more even-handed with the “telling the rules of the story while the story is being told” gimmick
  • Commits to the “fair-play murder mystery” rule, with information given out around the same time the narrator figures it out, and never directly contradicted later on.
  • Genuinely funny and clever in places.
  • I loved the format of the epilogue and how it was delivered.
  • Makes good use of the setting and what’s unique about a train journey through Australia.
  • Used the title to add a bit of depth to the story, reconsidering his role as the narrator and turning it into something of a love story.
  • Introduced the clever idea of the other characters being aware that they’re characters in a murder mystery, and trying to control how their role in the story is presented.

Cons

  • The gag that I’d thought was genuinely funny and clever was reused a couple too many times, I said, disappointedly.
  • One of the few times I’ve had to say out loud while reading a book, “This is so corny.
  • A couple of what I assumed to be the standout puzzles or clues were insultingly obvious, in my opinion. I tend not to read murder mysteries very closely, but I figured out the solutions (if not the full implication) immediately, and the book kept referring to them over and over as if they were some intriguingly perplexing conundrum.
  • Even after I’d figured out the “shape” of the story and its subplots, I still felt that the actual details (and the identity of the guilty parties) required deductive leaps I couldn’t have made on my own.
  • Many of the characters are overly broad stereotypes — too cartoonish to seem real, but not funny enough to work as comic relief.

Verdict
One star, ghastly. But seriously, I thought this was better than the first book. I read part of an interview with Stevenson in which he said his goal was to counteract the tendency of crime fiction (especially Australian crime fiction) to be much too dark, and he wanted to bring back some levity and the fun of “golden age” murder mysteries. By that standard, it works: they’re fun, engaging stories to try and solve. But I can’t shake the sense that they’re writing down to the perceived level of the audience, especially since this book so aggressively takes down a literary fiction snob. There are some interesting things going on with a metatextual story in which the characters are aware they’re in a story, but it doesn’t do enough with the idea.

I feel like I might appreciate the gimmick more if I’d never read the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, but as it is, the book has the feeling of “We have Anthony Horowitz at home.” (Which seems mean of me to say, but Stevenson is doing very well with the books, by all accounts, and the first is going to be turned into a series. I can’t imagine he’s particularly heartbroken by a stranger on the internet saying it’s “fine but not great.”)

Literacy 2024: Book 1: Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone

Benjamin Stevenson’s metatextual crime story

Book
Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Synopsis
A writer begrudgingly travels to a ski lodge for a reunion with his estranged family. When the body of an unidentified stranger is discovered on the slopes, seemingly dead of exposure, it starts a process of dredging up decades’ worth of family secrets.

Pros

  • The heavily metatextual style of the book — where the narrator acknowledges that he’s writing a detective story in which he plays both Holmes and Dr Watson — gives plenty of opportunities for flashbacks and re-contextualization, with tons of foreshadowing.
  • Maintains a light, almost-but-not-quite comedic tone even as it touches on some serious or even horrific subjects.
  • Repeatedly insists that it’s “playing fair” as a murder mystery, drawing attention to details that will be important later on.
  • The format of the book, along with its chapter breaks and section headings, gives it room to stretch out the intrigue, as you’re subconsciously waiting for the event or revelation that will make the section heading make sense.
  • Gave enough information that I was able to figure out the likely suspects, even though I wasn’t reading carefully enough to piece together any of the details.
  • It never occurred to me that Australia had areas with high enough elevation for ski lodges, so I learned something.

Cons

  • Especially at the beginning of the book, all of the self-awareness comes across as try-hard, with hyperlinks to stuff that happens in later chapters before we’ve fully had a chance to be invested in the story.
  • All of the artifice in the style makes the whole thing seem artificial. Revelations of past tragedies end up feeling weightless and too lurid to be believable.
  • Apart from the narrator, none of the characters feel like real people with real motivations; they act the way the story needs them to act in the moment. People bounce back from the shocking deaths of loved ones unbelievably quickly.
  • The book acknowledges the “people trapped in a remote location with a murderer” cliche as in And Then There Were None, but seems to be so worried about falling into a cliche that it loses everything that makes the format special. In particular, nobody seems to be all that worried by the fact that there’s a killer in their midst.
  • For as much as the book signals the details to pay attention to, it still ends up with a lengthy detective-explains-the-entire-mystery chapter that makes all kinds of deductive leaps that feel unearned.
  • If you go back through the story and think about the events as they would’ve played out in chronological order, many of the character motivations make no sense.

Verdict
Despite my list of cons, this was a very entertaining crime story. I think its biggest weakness is that the self-awareness overwhelms everything else, coming across as lampshading the weaknesses in the story instead of actually addressing them. But the format is also essential for elevating what is frankly an over-the-top and not-entirely-plausible backstory into something that’s completely engaging moment to moment.