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  • Adam Tye

Quick Review: This is How You Lose the Time War

Scroll through Goodreads' reviews and you'll find a bevvy of people twisting in blissful agony about how they can't possibly begin to describe this novel, as to do so would reduce and trivialise the lyrical majesty it conjures. Well, let's try:

'Time War' is part first-person perspective narrative, part epistolary about two rival agents in a battle throughout time. Each faction wants the world to cohere to their will, and so they travel across the universe, nudging events in order that history proceeds in the way they desire. Each chapter oscillates between the two agents, with half the chapter detailing their latest mission, and the other half being a letter received from their counterpart. These letters begin as goads, but eventually become confessional and romantic. The longer their affair continues, the more they desperately yearn for a way out of the fight, and the more their respective commanders become wise to their wandering loyalties.

So, a little conceptual, a bit knotty to experience in the moment, but not impossible to describe from a distance.

What inevitably makes 'Time War' feel so mercurial, is not its story, but its presentation. The book is written in the present-tense and is dense with poetic descriptions that drown in metaphor. Haters of exposition will be in literary heaven as the authors dump the reader into a conflict and refuse to give away any straight-talk on what is happening. For an epic romance dealing with complex sci-fi fantasy machinations, it is surprisingly ambiguous, and is often a pleasure to absorb just for the shape and feel that the words make in your mouth and brain.

But I longed for something real to grab on to. I have read many lyrical works these last few years (don't make me tap the 'Wolf Hall' sign again), but what made them sing was how their often round-about ways of writing seemed to emanate from a love of the ephemeral. In contrast, 'Time War' seems to come less from a fondness of the metaphorical, as it does a revulsion towards the literal. Like a film that commits to the one-shot longer than it should, I found myself begging the authors to cut to the chase; to be unafraid to speak plainly, just once in a while. But it doesn't. Why?

Well, placing myself in the authors' shoes, there is definitely something to be said for a story that sets its sights firmly on something unknowable, and so uses unconventional tricks to render it. 'Time War' seems wedded to the idea that its events are so far beyond the scope of human understanding - cyborg armies, 'all-is-one' beings of nature, and two agents at the centre of it all that are more akin to gods than people - that speaking plainly cannot possibly give it the texture it deserves. I don't think this approach can hold for the story's more 'mundane' chapters, but it is an appealing creative conceit. Better yet, towards the book's end, this method starts to bear some fruit, and the epic anguish of the last forty pages is an undeniable achievement. The cosmic scale of the final act finally matches the otherworldly prose, and what was originally opaque suddenly gains a tremendous momentum.

But even this success is built on a strange foundation - our dual protagonists: two characters with minimal distinction from each other, and who each treat reality with a curious disengagement. Cold characters learning to feel and breathe the beauty of the world are nothing to shirk at, but without a contrast, it can quickly become monotonous. The result is that, even as these characters are eventually pushed beyond their limits and the writing blossoms, it feels too late.

I have read more novels in 2023 than I have ever before cleared in a single year, and the vast majority of them have been idiosyncratic and conceptually bold. So it is saying a lot that This is How You Lose the Time War may just be the most creatively intense of the batch. As a work of romantic expression, 'Time War' has the potential to captivate (indeed, its success indicates that it very much has), but I struggled to engage with it as anything above a literary exercise; a flexing of muscles by two very talented authors. Less of a story than a forest - one which trusts that its readers will want to get lost inside with them. For many, that appeal will be undeniable. I just wish they'd bothered to light the way for when it gets dark.


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