If there is one book that has interesting reviews online, it is This is How You Lose the Time War. Prior to reading the book, all I knew about it was that it is about time travelling and people love it even though they didn’t understand the book.
I finally read it in January with my book club and I have to say: it was hella captivating. You will see many quotes in this post because I annotated a lot and also a spoiler-filled section later because I HAVE to share what I felt when reading the book.
This is How You Lose the Time War synopsis
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.
Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?
Content warnings: Animal killing, Gore, Rape (mentioned), Self-harm, Suicide (mentioned), Torture, War/Violence
Since it was a group read, I read it only on readalong calls with other club members every weekend. If I had read it alone, I would have probably finished it in one sitting instead of three Saturdays.
This is How You Lose the Time War drops us right into the story with no explanation or warning and goes from there. The reader has to read multiple chapters to understand what is going on and even then they might be confused.
I felt like I had a proper grasp of the book only about 50% into it. Since I had not read the actual synopsis, I had zero comprehension of the story in the beginning. My understanding grew very slowly in comparison to the pace of the story. But once things started clicking properly in my head, I was enthralled by the book.
Adventure works in any strand—it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.
The story is fast paced from the start. After we’re dropped in, the book does not wait for us to understand before picking up the speed. It makes for some interesting chapters (or the entire book) while we are confused about what is going on.
As someone who doesn’t like slow-paced stories, this was right up my street. Towards the end, I couldn’t read it fast enough and didn’t take a pause. I wanted to know what happens next and next and next.
The time travel aspect did not disappoint. The two main characters travel upthread (back in time) and downthread (forward in time) to make small changes which create big impacts because of the butterfly effect. It was really interesting to see them jump “strands”, compare the different strands of time, and make waves.
With every time travelling story, I want one big twist or revelation. There are so many opportunities with time travelling. This book took the opportunity and had a really good twist at the end. It took a fact that was quietly intriguing throughout the story and made it into a huge thing. All of the hints fit together perfectly. I GASPED.
The book had me in a chokehold, basically.
Hope may be a dream. But she will fight to make it real.
A great book has to have great characters and This is How You Lose the Time War had the perfect protagonists. Red and Blue are time travelling agents in rival companies. Neither of them are human but they often take human-like bodies. They travel in time and make waves in order to deliver what their agencies want, but they also sabotage moves made by the rival agency.
Red and Blue are one of the most talented in their respective agencies and their paths cross often. They start sabotaging and taunting each other, leaving creative letters which lead to more. I didn’t know that there was romance in the book so when the hints came, my book club had to confirm it for me. This book was impressing me more and more as I read it.
The relationship development between Red and Blue was slow, entertaining, and full of yearning. This book delivered a brilliant sapphic enemies/rivals to lovers romance. It was awesome to see them pretending to be enemies and being super talented at their job while writing letters FULL of pining. I was annotating heavily towards the end.
To read your letters is to gather flowers from within myself, pluck a blossom here, a fern there, arrage and rearrange them in ways to suit a sunny room.
The interesting thing about the characters and the romance is that the characters are not really women so it’s a “sapphic” romance only because they use she/her pronouns. Red and Blue definitely don’t take on heteronormative roles in their relationship as well. Some parts of their personality do make them butch and femme but they’re in a dimension of their own.
They also upstage the heteronormative time travelling romance trope that we generally see. Red and Blue sabotage each other and come up with very inventive ways of sending/reading letters. I looked forward to seeing what they do in every chapter. At the end, after the twist, everything cranks up and we truly see the depth of what time travelling can do. It was amazing.
This is How You Lose the Time War is a book that I will remember and need to reread now that I have a better understanding. The story, the characters, and the writing will keep me awake on random nights for years to come.
It is only around 200 pages but packs a ton. I highly recommend it because I believe it is one of the best romance books. Whether you understand the plot or not, you will enjoy the story.
discussion with spoilers
If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this section! Click here to skip to the bottom of this post.
I generally don’t have spoiler sections for book reviews like my KDrama reviews but I have to include it here because I want to talk about that ending. The last third of the book was a crescendo. It amped up the yearning and the brilliance in both Blue and Red.
Just in case you’re not on the same page as me, here’s the ending explained along with my thoughts:
After Blue dies from the poison created by Red and her faction, Red basically loses herself in grief. One day, she comes upon a painting which shows the scenario of Blue’s death almost exactly as it happened. The difference is the missing poison, letter, and the being in the painting has red hair.
Red remembers bits of Blue’s letters and remembers that the poison was tailored for Blue’s faction and wouldn’t have any affect on Red and her fellow agents. She also remembers that while Garden shelters its agents as they grow up, there was an incident during Blue’s former years due to which there was a hole in her brain. A hole which can be used.
Blue, as a complete Garden agent, cannot survive the poison. And Red cannot enter Garden’s areas because she does not have Garden’s genetic make up. But they have scattered pieces of themselves in time through their ingenious letters.
A letter is more than text. She reads Blue into her: tears, breath, skin—most of these traces were scrubbed away, but a few remain. She builds a model of Blue’s mind from the words she left; she molds her body to the letters’ measure. Almost.
Taking the wild chance, Red travels upthread (back in time) and retraces her own footsteps. The end of chapter 22 says “then she climbs up and goes seeking.” Red is the Seeker whom we’ve been seeing and wondering about until now. This was when I gasped. The revelation blew my mind.
After Past Red and Past Blue read and disposed of the letters, Red/the Seeker collects the pieces. She eats and absorbs pieces of Blue’s letters because Blue’s letters contain parts of Blue, and hence, parts of the Garden genetic make up.
When Past Red caught onto someone following her and thought it was the Commandment having her followed, it was actually her future self. Red laid traps for herself and later fell into her own traps, she fought herself in the shadows, and felt paranoid because of herself. Seeker Red also tries to reach out to her past self but can’t reveal herself without tainting past experiences, and hence Past Red thinks she’s in danger.
Sometimes you have to hold a person, though they’ll mistake embrace for strangulation.
I was shocked by the news and what it meant for all the points until then. But if you think about it, it was obvious in a way. No one except Blue was as talented as Red and hence no one else could have followed Red through everything. No one else knows Red intimately and can keep up with her travel. In hindsight, it is clear. But I didn’t even consider it as the possible outcome before.
The best part is how brilliantly Blue was written. There were hints all along of Blue subtly planting this idea in Red’s mind. As Seeker Red snatches up all of Blue’s letters, she reads them again and finds clues. How long ago had Blue planned it? She was never going to kill Red.
The fact that we got reveals which altered our perception of whatever happened and, at the same time, watch Red get reveals which alter her perception of everything so far was mindblowing. The plot and the writing played out so well in chapter 23.
Red may be bad, but to die for madness is to die for something.
Red becomes Blue, basically. Or a mixture of herself and Blue. She enters Garden “as a letter, sealed in Blue” and finds young Blue. Red gives Blue a taste of the poison which would be used far into the future and also some of herself that is resistant to the poison. Red essentially vaccinates Blue against the poison she created.
Reading that scene was like reorienting everything I knew about the story. And that, my friends, is what a makes a great time travel story. While the revelation about Red did come somewhat linear in time, where she was herself and then later becomes something else, Blue was different from the start. Or you could say that she changed at the end only for everything from the beginning to be changed.
So. Blue, in the end, survived because a part of her was Red. Both Blue and Red are “tainted” now, both between two polar opposite things. When Red got out of Garden and was captured by her Agency, Blue got her out with—of course—a letter. The book ends with them deciding to fight together against both their factions. They will face their biggest challenge and have fun.
Shall we prick and twist and play the braid until it yields us a place downthread, ned the fork of our Shifts into a double helix around our base pair?
Shall we build a bridge between our Shifts and hold it—a space in which to be neighbours, to keep dogs, share tea?