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

★★★★☆ (4/5)
A selection of my favourite passages from the book

• Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged—the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

• Not every battle’s grand, not every weapon erce. Even we who ght wars through time forget the value of a word in the right moment, a rattle in the right car engine, a nail in the right horseshoe . . . It’s so easy to crush a planet that you may overlook the value of a whisper to a snowbank.

• Who’s infecting whom? We know from our hoarse Trojans, in my time. Will you respond, establishing complicity, continuing our self-destructive paper trail, just to get in the last word? Will you cut o , leaving my note to spin its fractal math inside you? I wonder which I’d rather.

• Red curses into the silence. Remembering the era, she invokes local fertility deities, frames inventive methods for their copulation. She exhausts her invective arsenal and growls, wordless, and spits into the abyss. After all that, as prophesied, she laughs. Thwarted, bitter, but still, there’s humor in it.

• Will you go still or turn sharply when you know that I’m watching you? Will you see me? Imagine me waving, in case you don’t; I’ll be too far o for you to see my mouth.

• Icicles drip and snap as the great trees fall, and felled, the trees leave gaps in green that bare the cold white sky. Warriors like those at clouds better than the forest’s gloom, but not so much as they loved the blue of home.

• Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.

• The usual nonsense. I imagine you have something of the same: The Agency squats far downthread, issues agents up; then Commandant doubts the agents who return. Yes, we diverge in our travels; yes, we acquire shades; we round; we behave asocially. Adaption is the price of victory. You might think they would realize that.

• There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my small joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the ies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for ve years, you could return never—and I have to write the rest of this not knowing. I prefer read-receipts, all things considered—the instant handshake of slow telepathy through our wires.

• Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?

• London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, lthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving.

• Adventure works in any strand—it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.

• You ask if I’ve been lonely. I hardly know how to answer. I have observed friendship as one observes high holy days: breathtakingly short, whirlwinds of intimate endeavour, frenzied carousing, the sharing of food, of wine, of honey. Compressed, always, and gone as soon as they come. It is often my duty to fall in love convincingly, and certainly I’ve received no complaints. But that is work, and there are better things of which to write.

• We treat the past as trellis, coax our vineyard through and around, and harvest is not a word for swiftness; the future harvests us, stomps us into wine, pours us back into the root system in loving libation, and we grow stronger and more potent together.

• but I look at you, Red, and see much of myself: a desire to be apart, sometimes, to understand who I am without the rest. And what I return to, the me-ness that I know as pure, inescapable self . . . is hunger. Desire. Longing, this longing to possess, to become, to break like a wave on a rock and reform, and break again, and wash away

• It is difficult—it is very difficult, to befriend where you wish to consume, to nd those who, when they ask Do I have you still, when they end a letter with Yours, mean it in any substantive way.

• So I go. I travel farther and faster and harder than most, and I read, and I write, and I love cities. To be alone in a crowd, apart and belonging, to have distance between what I see and what I am.

• but Red’s letters she keeps in her own body, curled beneath her tongue like coins, printed in her ngers’ tips, between the lines of her palms.

• So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone. I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn

• In fourteenth-century Axum, Islamicized and strong in Strand 3329, Red, in shadows, stabs a man who’s about to stab another man who’s wandering home buzzed on espresso, sugar, and math. The man Red stabs dies. The mathematician wakes up the next day and invents a form of thought that, in another strand, much later, will be called hyperbolic geometry. Red’s already gone.

• Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt

• To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.

• I like you to know, with my words in your mouth, the places and ways in which I think of you. It feels good to be reciprocal; eat this part of me while I drive reeds into the depth of you, spill out something sweet. I wish sometimes I could be less erce with you. No—I feel sometimes like I ought to want to be less erce with you. That this—whatever this is —would be better served by tenderness, by gentle kindness. Instead I write of spilling out your sap-guts with reeds. I hope you can forgive this. To be soft, for me, is so often pretense, and pretense does not come easily while writing to you.

• You wrote of being in a village upthread together, living as friends and neighbours do, and I could have swallowed this valley whole and still not have sated my hunger for the thought. Instead I wick the longing into thread, pass it through your needle eye, and sew it into hiding somewhere beneath my skin, embroider my next letter to you one stitch at a time.

• When Garden embeds an agent—as I’m sure your Commandant has noticed—they are near impossible to approach, indistinguishable from their surroundings, so thoroughly enmeshed in the fabric of strands that to cut us out would tear unsightly holes through which Chaos pours, Chaos no one downthread wants, not even your Oracle, who lives and breathes the stu . Too unpredictable, too dicult to manage, the cost/benet all askew—so you catch us on the move, in between, while we’re dancing the braid as well, touching lives only lightly. Even Garden has diculty reaching us with the more nuanced branches of their consciousness; to be an agent out of time and approach someone embedded you’d need to practically wear their skin before the braid would allow you within fty years or a thousand miles of their position.

• I make metaphors to approach the enormous fact of you on slant

• I’ve never felt it before this —I’ve had joy in sex; I’ve had fast friendships. Neither feels right for this, and this feels bigger than both. So let me say what I mean, as well as I can. I sought loneliness when I was young. You’ve seen me there: on my promontory, patient and unaware. But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.

• You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.

• The twist of you in me. The writhe. You’re a whip uncoiling in my veins, and I write between the rearing and the snap. Of course I write to you. Of course I ate your words.

• Suppose we reached across the burn of threads and tangles, cut through the braid’s knots—suppose that we defected, not to each other’s sides, but to each other? We’re the best there is at what we do. Shall we do something we’ve never done? Shall we prick and twist and play the braid until it yields us a place downthread, bend the fork of our Shifts into a double helix around our base pair?

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