The problem with time-travel stories is the haywire factor: Their tendency (almost guaranteed) to, at some point, just go completely off the rails.
See, there's an in-built suicide switch in a time-travel story that's endemic to the form. Because once you start messing with timelines and alternate, competing realities, you're decoupling effect from cause, removing consequence from action. And once you do that, narrative structure, like a doughnut in hot coffee, just falls all to pieces.
The epistolary novel, too, has a genetic defect that often (read: nearly always) cripples it. Like one of those shaky little dogs incapable of surviving in any environment less sheltered than a rich lady's purse, the novel of letters is so deliberately narrow in focus (two people having a single, extended conversation, spoken only in complete thoughts, paragraphs, postscripts, arrhythmic with lag between statement and response) that it can only traditionally exist in the hothouse environment of passionate, thwarted love or, occasionally, prison.
But what if someone wrote a time-travel story that made the uncoupling and haywire craziness the entire point? And what if you could ground all that crazy in the simple, pure yearning of two lovers separated by the streams of space and time, passing letters to each other across the chaos?
Well, you'd have The Lake House, of course. But if you took that sappy story of unrequited love, Keanu Reeves and a time-traveling mailbox, strapped it up in body armor, covered it with razors, dipped it in poison and set it loose to murder and burn its way across worlds and centuries, what you'd end up with is This Is How You Lose The Time War, the experimental, collaborative, time-travelling love-and-genocide novel by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
What you'd have are Red and Blue: Two agents working for opposing sides in a time war that has raged across a thousand realities, through all of time. They are soldiers. Spies. Deep-cover operatives playing their parts in a long-game battle for control over the future. One comes from a distant technological utopia. The other from a verdant hippie-elf tomorrow where everyone is part of some kind of tree-based hive-consciousness. They have lived hundreds of lifetimes apiece, Red and Blue. Won some and lost some. Each is the apex predator of their kind. Each, alternately, the perfect prey.
And their relationship begins with a letter left in the ashes of a dying world circling some distant star. With blood in her hair, last woman standing on a battlefield full of corpses, Red finds a letter that says simply, "Burn Before Reading." She knows it's dangerous. She knows she shouldn't even look. But she does anyway.
Taunts. Challenges. Threats. That's where Red and Blue start. When they win, they want someone to brag to. A nose to rub it in. So in the patterns of boiling water, sketched in a lava flow, grown into the living rings of a tree cut down by Genghis Khan's armies is where they leave their messages to each other. They cross paths in Atlantis, in a steampunk-y London, in ancient temples and a Stalingrad full of Nazi zombies, never meeting, never seeing anything but traces of each other (because time travel, you know?). But they are connected by the letters. By sharing their hungers, their weariness, their fears. Who else could understand? Who would've lived long enough, fought hard enough, to have seen 30 different Atlantises all meet their ends in 30 different timelines?
They fall in love by degrees, a word at a time. They risk their lives and positions and power because what they are doing is betrayal of the highest order. What one side wouldn't give for a woman on the inside, after all. For an agent of the enemy to turn.
El-Mohtar, who is an NPR contributor, and Gladstone sidestep the pitfall of the time-travel story by leaning way into the chaos of it all. They embrace the inexplicable convolutions of narrative rendered by bending time's arrow and make each chapter a vignette — a specific time, place, moment, detailing starship battles or coastal fishing villages where subtle, long games are played to shape the course of the future. But they don't traffic in the how or the why. There is no larger picture here. No grand design revealed. Red and Blue are soldiers. They go where they are told by their commanders. They do the terrible things they are born to do and don't ask questions.
But in between, the letters — snarky, sappy, desperate, heartfelt and dangerous. El-Mohtar and Gladstone's voices as Red and Blue are dissimilar enough to give each a flavor, yet enough alike that there's an almost alien sense of dislocation about them. Each writes like they have seen the beginning and the end of time and everything in between. Like they are absolutely exhausted by it, but suddenly, slowly, carefully wakening into this impossible connection. This love which, if discovered, will get them both killed.
And the thrill of This Is How You Lose The Time War suddenly becomes not the time travel, not the war, not any of those things that no one could ever describe anyway, but just the connection between two lonely professional killers with the ability to inscribe letters on lava. After a thousand lifetimes spent fighting, the coalescent story becomes about how to finally stop. In a complicated universe where anything done can be undone before it ever happened, all that matters is simply finding a way to be together.
No matter the consequences.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.