Robyn Reviews: This is How You Lose the Time War

‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a gorgeously written novella that crosses the boundaries between sci-fi, romance, and literary fiction. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to capture in mere words – it’s an experience, and to reduce it to a simple summary or review would be to do it a disservice. I also suspect it’s a Marmite novella – some will adore it, and some will find it confusing and lacking any sort of substance.

Somewhen and somewhere – and by the same token, everywhen and everywhere – there are two rival time agents. Each seek out strands of time – sections of history – and subtly alter them to the needs of their side. They race to get there before agents of the enemies, to tip the balance of progress in their direction. Amidst this war, Red finds a letter. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence across time and space between two ultimate rivals – a correspondence which would see both branded traitors and could lead to one side ultimately winning, or losing, the time war.

The issue with that summary is that the novella is only tangentially about the war. The war is there, it’s happening, and it’s important in that it’s the entire reason for Red and Blue’s existence – but it’s merely the backdrop. The real story is about Red and Blue. Red, an agent of the Commandant, made for a purpose, perfected, sharpened; a woman who needs nothing, but finds herself craving it anyway. Blue, an agent of the Garden, a woman who thirsts and hungers and wants – a thrill-seeker of extreme talent who finds herself out of even her considerable depth. It’s also a story about words – the power of language, connection, expression; the power of emotion and its conveyance. The ideas and language are elaborate, but the underlying themes are simple. This is a love story, albeit one with teeth.

The novella alternates between Red and Blue, with the bulk of the story told in the form of letters. At-first, the non-letter content seems superfluous and unnecessary – as the novella develops, it becomes more substantial, but the letters are still the emotive heart. The narrative style of both the action and the letters is elaborate. El-Mohtar and Gladstone craft prose which resembles poetry – overly fanciful and descriptive, but at the same time gorgeous. They use many words to say what could be said in far fewer, but it’s so beautiful it adds an ethereal nature to what is already an otherwordly story – after all, it is a story about time-travel.

This is a sci-fi novella in that it deals with time travel, but very light sci-fi in that very few of the concepts are explained. The origins of the warring agencies remain a mystery, as does the nature of time travel. References are made to parallel strands of time – multiverse theory – and other futuristic concepts like neural implants and nanites, but this is at heart a literary novella not a scientific one. It can be confusing trying to navigate this unfamiliar universe without any explanations, but no knowledge of them is required to appreciate the beauty of the central tale. A little exposition would make life easier for the reader, but I can see why the authors chose not to.

Overall, ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a beautifully written, genre transcending novella that weaves a tale of obsession and forbidden love. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s an ambitious piece of fiction and a credit to its authors. Recommended to fans of gorgeous prose and stories that really make their readers feel.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Paperback: July 18th 2019

Book Review: The Plankton Collector

“That picture […] will be amongst the snaps which she keeps all her life in the old chocolate box, the captured iconic moments of seaside holidays, made happy by a trick of memory”

The Plankton Collector, by Cath Barton, tells the story of a family struggling to cope in the wake of a death. Rose and David live in comfortable surroundings with their three children but their marriage is not a happy one. Each believes that, over the years, they have given the other what was expected and required, yet neither feels fulfilled. When their elder son, Edgar, dies following an illness they and the boy’s siblings each retreat into individual, dark shells.

Ten year old Mary seeks solace in books, escaping from her home when she can, now that Mother is always crying. On a day like any other she meets a stranger who, despite warnings to the contrary, she knows she can trust. He takes her to the seaside where she plays with a new companion. The episode is surreal, inexplicable, yet remains as a comforting memory.

Rose’s memories from her younger days bring her little comfort. She believes she was happy once, before she lost her best friend. Now she has lost a child and fears her husband is increasing the distance between them. A stranger she meets as she tends her son’s grave takes her on a journey that reminds her she must work on the small things so as not to be defeated by the bigger picture.

Twelve year old Bunny meets the stranger in a den he used to spend time in with Edgar. Bunny finds he can talk almost freely about many issues that have been bothering him, although not about his father. The man understands and knows to bide his time.

David is troubled by his recent behaviour yet unsure how to extricate himself. To help him the stranger, in the form of a rich uncle, offers to take the children away for a week’s holiday. Left to themselves Rose and David can talk about their growing rift.

The stranger is the Plankton Collector, although to each he goes by a different name. He appears when most needed. The journeys he takes with each family member are as real as they need them to be.

In haunting, exquisite prose the author explores the disconnects that exist within families as each deals with the internal difficulties inherent in life as it progresses. Moments of happiness can be overshadowed by loss, yet it is the former that should be granted attention and treasured.

In this short novella a world has been conjured that recognises the depths of unhappiness yet offers hope. It reminds that reactions when grieving are neither uniform nor prescriptive, but that individuals, once known, are never entirely lost.

‘You will remember this place,’ he continued, ‘and you will always be able to come back to it in your minds. No-one can take your happy memories away from you.’

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.

Book Review: Stuff

stuff front cover

Stuff, by Charlie Hill, is a short novella that takes the reader through a week in the life of a thirty-something year old man who has been struck by the understanding that his impetus to progress through life has stalled without warning. Having survived what he describes as a rocky patch when he was younger he had reached a place where he could derive pleasure from his simple day to day experiences. He could walk from his small flat to the local supermarket and see colour in the people and places he passed by on the way. He could cope with his job and the perverse changes being enacted. He spent time with his girlfriend and enjoyed their quiet existence.

And then something changed. He realised that

“The blaze inside me must have been dying for some time […] I just hadn’t realised.”

No longer could he find reasons for putting up with the curveballs thrown his way. The gratification he found in the small things – a chance meeting, a colourful butterfly or flower that he couldn’t name but wished to learn – was no longer there. There seemed no point to his existence and he lacked the energy to find a way to kick-start his being.

He turns to an old friend and to his girlfriend but realises that they are not responsible for helping him out of his discombobulation. He confesses to his mother, feeling safe in doing so due to her advanced dementia.

Something must be done. He cannot continue in this oppressive grey.

The writing is subtle and poignant. An ordinary life is depicted with its sensitivity to variances of mindset, sometimes difficult to reason with or control.

The denouement is chilling yet not without hope. This is an intimate, affecting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.