A Tunnel in the Sky

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

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 4, 2019

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Thanks to Net Galley for the opportunity to read this story early in exchange for an honest review. A collaboration from Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War will be released in about six weeks, July 16, 2019. While FantasticFiction.com identifies it as a novel, everything else I had heard about it said novella. Based on page count and estimated word count, it's probably at the high end of the latter category.

UPDATE: Its award nominations and wins confirms it's a novella. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, British Science Fiction Association, and Locus awards, and finalist for Shirley Jackson, Sturgeon, Aurora, and the Kitchies.

Such a beautiful, lyrical story, I even read portions of it out loud. If I buy it later I may go with the audible version, depending on the narrator. There are two character perspectives, but the style is consistent throughout, so it's likely both authors edited each others work. What I read was an uncorrected proof, but unlike several others of late it was well formatted, and relatively free of typos. While I'm not supposed to quote without checking a finished copy, I feel safe in revealing a phrase that was used that succinctly lays out the premise. "Assassinations become assignations."

Sometime in the future time travel becomes reality. There are two factions traveling the time streams, altering events in order to assure the future they want, as well as trying to undo the changes imposed by their opposition. The past, present, and future are described in such a way as to imply a fabric. Specific events and their aftermath are threads, strands are alternate versions of each historical event, with agents tying or untying knots with their actions. Scenarios range from past historical periods, to future ones in space or on other planets. What is not clear is with which army we're supposed to sympathize. Since both can easily backtrack to correct any change they don't like, it is possible the Time War will continue indefinitely. Or maybe Red and Blue can bring it all to a halt.

Red works for the Commandant, head of The Agency. Blue is an agent of Garden. Perhaps as a feint, a ploy to throw her opponent off guard, Blue leaves a letter for Red to discover, with the enigmatic direction to "Burn Before Reading." Thus begins a correspondence between the two agents all across time, upthread and down. What begins as taunts, the opportunity to proselytize for their side, turns to curiosity about the other's viewpoint. They have to devise unique and secretive ways for their letters to not be detected by anyone else, especially other agents or their superiors. When suspicious activity is noticed by the Commandant, she thinks Red is being set up for defection to the other side. Red suspects she may be right, but she hopes she is not, since by this time she has fallen in love with Blue, and thinks Blue feels the same. How can they continue their correspondence and keep it hidden from others, or could it be possible for both of them to defect and leave the war behind? Lose the war, but win love?

I don't know if this is a stand-alone story, or if we can expect sequels. If there are, I'll read them, but it works either way. I can visualize Red and Blue's future myself. What is hard to visualize is how a proposed television series will look, how they'll present the letters. I won't explain that, not only to avoid spoilers, but even a long and complicated explanation might not sound plausible. The only other thing I'll say right now is this is highly recommended. Don't miss it.

PS: I need to track down that Naomi Mitchison book Blue recommended to Red.


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Amal El-Mohtar
Max Gladstone

July 16, 2019

Winner of:

Finalist for:
Shirley Jackson

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