Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s 2019 This is How You Lose the Time War is a standalone SF novel.
Two great powers, technological Agency and biological Garden, are engaged in a long, brutal war for control of reality itself. Not satisfied with shaping a single universe to suit their tastes, both sides covet control of every history of every universe.
Red fights for Agency. Red is very good at their job. Good enough to attract the attention of Garden operative Blue.
Once you’ve noticed an enemy agent of great competence, the reasonable thing to do would be to orchestrate said agent’s death. Blue decides instead to open a dialogue, leaving a snarky letter for their opposite number to find and read.
Reading the letter would be an absurd risk. It could be coated with poison. It could be an attempt to draw Red over to Garden’s cause. Nevertheless, Red reads the letter. What is even more astounding, Red replies.
Across a myriad of realities, the two operatives carry out their commanders’ orders with ruthless efficiency. Again and again, Red and Blue find themselves on the opposite sides of a conflict. Unbeknownst to their commanders, the frenemies use these confrontations to leave messages for each other. A long correspondence follows.
Friendship kindles into something more. But how can Red trust Blue and vice versa? And even if they can believe that their mutual affection is not pretense, not a cunning ploy, how can either hope to survive the consequences if their bosses notice what is going on?
One day, one of Red’s worst fears becomes real. Her superiors have noticed the existence of Blue; they know she has a talent for confounding the Agency’s plans. They opt for the obvious solution: kill Blue. Their chosen weapon? The Agency’s top agent, the operative whose path Blue crosses again and again: Red.
For the most part I enjoyed this book, so I will put my one major complaint at the start of this section; with any luck readers will have forgotten my kvetch by the time they get to the purchase links. SF authors are too dang fond of plots about autocracies and those autocracies are too dang similar. In this book, the two sides are like mirror images. The Garden seems to put a slightly pleasanter face on their actions, but both Agency and Garden are top down organizations whose lower levels are staffed by expendables numb to the carnage they cause. (Easy to avoid thinking about consequences; time travel means it happened long ago and far away.)
On the plus side: the letters that Red and Blue exchange are snarky, witty, and fun. The attraction between Red and Blue may be inevitable (books about unrequited love tend not to be as popular as love stories); there may be a minimum of suspense; nonetheless, watching Red and Blue fall for each other is enchanting.
We are living in a golden age of novellas and short novels. Case in point, this offering from Saga, which clocks in at a lean two hundred pages. After decades of reading authors who stagger through interminable tome after tome, chasing resolutions that recede like the end of the rainbow, it is a welcome relief to find authors who can deliver a complete story in one slim text. More like this, please.