Hugo 2020 Novellas: This How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Two agents from two conceptually different future outcomes for the universe, range through time attempting to shape history to make the destiny of their faction the inevitable one. Stepping between worlds and alternate realities they begin a correspondence: at first taunting and bragging, then flirting and then, inevitably, declaring their love for one another. The plot is easy to sum up primarily because the details to some degree do not matter, the arc is inevitable but that’s part of why it is the perfect choice for a story about vast factions attempting to tweak history.

Of all the novella finalists this year, it is the most ambitious — an author collaboration on timey-wimey epistolary story that is happy to indulge in long flights of romantic prose. That it works at all is remarkable, whether it always works well, I’m not so sure. I’m really not sure whether I wanted a story that was longer or one that was shorter. The argument for shorter was, I’m sad to say, that I got bored with the point at which Red and Blue were just saying how much they loved each other repeatedly — it was sweet but I was relieved when the story moved towards its end game.

The argument for longer? Both the Garden and the Agency were underplayed and while the whole point is there is no real rationale for the Time War, a better sense of what the factions imagined the stakes were is something I craved. That same context was missing for Red and Blue in terms of their fellow agents or connections with other ongoing characters. Really only the Commandant existed as an additional character throughout the story. The personal isolation of both agents was part of the issue that both had and provides a reason for them to continue to reach out to each other but without any other real personal dynamic with anybody else that very passion between them lacked something.

I ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I was actually enjoying it. However, there’s some stunningly well written sections and the obsessive and baroque methods by which messages are exchanged as the characters zip between settings is delightful. The vivid imagery and use of verbal colour is compelling, as is the technique of referencing paintings (in particular Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton) to add to the very visual sense of the story.

I very much do like to see bold stories that take big risks and follow ideas through. I really can’t fault it by that standard, even if it didn’t quite pay off its promise for me.

14 thoughts on “Hugo 2020 Novellas: This How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

  1. I felt like it made promises it didn’t live up to. It promised a complicated time-travel narrative but it gave me an insipid love story with time travel as a sugar dusting. It demonstrated a lack of knowledge of genre expectations of time travel that’s a little shocking in a world where Doctor Who is a massive phenomenon.

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      1. Yeah, that was the thing: suddenly they were in this intense correspondence relationship, without anything in the way of plot or character development to show how and why they got there; it just materialized out of thin air.

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  2. I compared this novella to an angel-food cake. The prose in this story is lovely — light and fluffy and sweet, but the the worldbuilding is marginal and doesn’t make sense, the “plot” itself is just a McGuffin, and the character development is negligible. There’s just no “there” there. I get why some people loved this story, but for me it was extremely unsatisfying.

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  3. I’m one of those who really enjoyed this a lot. It was one of the novellas I nominated.

    Right now it’s in second place on my ballot.

    I certainly understand why some people wouldn’t like it–and why it would really put some people off. I was a little bit surprised that it made the ballot, because when I read it last summer, I realized right away it was the kind of story that people either love or hate. But then I think it was Cam who pointed out in one of the earlier posts about the Hugos that being that kind of story makes it easy to get on the short list, but may not bode well for victory.

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