Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?

Danika reviews Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

That’s what resistance looks like, Merlin. It’s not one glorious, shining victory. It’s a torch you keep burning, no matter what.

I’m not even sure how to approach writing about this book, because it is so ambitious. Once & Future is a queer, sci fi retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Dystopia, because in this future, the universe is ruled by the Mercer Corporation, which keeps everyone in line by controlling the supply of water. But there’s enough space ships to scratch that sci fi itch, and, of course, there’s Excalibur, Merlin, Morgana, and the Lady in the Lake to keep things fantastical.

That’s partly why it’s so delightful that this also has an almost entirely queer cast. (With several poc characters as well, but this isn’t as clearly defined, so I’m pretty sure Ari is Ketch (Arab) and Lam is Black, but I’m not sure about all the other characters.) Ari and her adoptive brother have two moms. Merlin is gay. Ari, Val, and Gwen are all queer, there’s an asexual character, and there’s a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. There is no explanation, no reason why everyone happens to be queer, except that in the future, they aren’t so weird about it. (When Merlin says that in his time, people use phenotypical features to guess people’s gender, the other characters are disgusted by this backwards belief.) It’s nice that we’re finally reaching the point where you can have a genre book packed full of queer characters, and to have it be entirely incidental to the plot.

Speaking of plot, I have no idea how to try to summarize it succinctly. Post global warming, humans retired Earth and sought new homes on the moon and on different planets. Ari was born on Ketch, but she was found as a small child in wreckage near the planet. Ketch, originally founded by Arab people, has since been sealed off under a barrier for their resistance against Mercer. Kay and his two moms adopt illegal refugee Ari and start running from the law. When they attempt to return her to Ketch, Mom and Captain Mom (!!!) are arrested, and Kay and Ari are left to fend for themselves–until Merlin shows up to tell Ari that she’s the latest (and first female) reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur, destined to bring down evil (Mercer), ascend the nearest throne, and unite humanity. (Ari is skeptical. Merlin thinks that this usually is easier: “Most boys secretly believed they should be heroes: the stories told them so.”) And that about brings us up to the first couple chapters.

The story is shared between Merlin and Ari. Ari is a reluctant hero, just trying to protect her family and friends and do the right thing. Merlin has been training dozens of incarnations of Arthur throughout time, all without fulfilling their destiny of uniting humanity. Every time, he has to watch Arthur die. He then sleeps in a cave until the next incarnation is ready to begin training. Not only is he stuck in this cycle, tormented by Morgana, but he’s also aging backwards throughout it. Now, he’s a teenager, and he’s terrified of what happens when he becomes a child, then an infant.

One of the things that Merlin is seeking to avoid this cycle is Gweneviere and Arthur’s doomed romance. Gwen and Ari are no exception: they’ve been at each other’s throat since childhood at Knights Camp on Gwen’s medieval-themed planet. Of course, that animosity may have just been hiding something else… Unfortunately, Arthurs are destined to have their hearts broken by their Gwenevieres, betrayed by the knight they trust the most: Lancelot. Ari and Gwen’s relationship is just as passionate and thorny as their star-crossed history would suggest.

And no matter what, Ari wasn’t going to be able to walk away from Gwen. She would stay right here, in the riot of her pain, for even a chance at this closeness.

There is also a moment near the end of the book that reminded me of this take on the “ultimate female power fantasy” of The Last Jedi, so that was pretty great.

In fact, if it hasn’t already been clear, I loved this book. It is epic and feminist and queer. It’s about resistance and survival, making connections and refusing to back down. It’s being bravely vulnerable. I loved that I got to know this whole ridiculous crew, who all add to the story. They become a family, in their stubborn, arguing, loyal way. It’s fast-paced, captivating, funny, and feminist. Despite the action and comedy, it’s also deeply emotional, and has moving f/f and m/m romances. When I first added this to Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to see that it’s the first in the series, because I worried that it wouldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I would have to wait for a long time to get the sequel. Now, I’m grateful, because I’m not ready to leave this family behind, and I definitely didn’t predict that ending. (Though I was right about one thing: I am impatient to read the sequel!)

And you were the thing Mercer feared most. A girl they couldn’t control, who wouldn’t stop talking. That’s the scariest damn thing in the universe.

[Content warning/spoiler, highlight to read: I do want to read a review by a Middle Eastern reviewer, because Ketch is described as a planet founded by Arabs, who lead the resistance. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Mercer corporation. Although there is diversity in the crew, I didn’t feel good about all the Ketch people being killed other than Ari…]

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Imagine that you are telling a science fiction story for cavemen, a hundred thousand years ago. Imagine that you’re all sat around a fire, half-covered by an outcropping of stone, hoping that tomorrow will be drier than today, and you decide you’ll tell a story about the far future. Imagine that somehow you have the gift of true sight, and you dream up a simple story about a foiled weekend lunch date in Manhattan. Something simple–two people match on Tinder, but there’s a problem with the subway, and then the taxi driver is a bit of a character but misunderstands where he’s supposed to be taking her, and she ends up walking home from the wrong restaurant, glad that she remembered to throw a pair of flats into her bag.

Where do you start? How do you guide your listener into the setting? Say, when your character has to take that taxi. Do you start by trying to explain an internal combustion engine to your listeners, who have never seen smelted metal? Do you try to describe glass as translucent as water to an audience who has never seen so much as a rough glass bead? How do you describe the setting, miles of skyscrapers and roads teeming with passerby, to someone who has never seen a man-made wall? How would you even begin to describe a smartphone, and then a dating app, to a people who have no written language, and who might only meet twenty or thirty other people their entire lives? How do you explain all this in-narrative, when any character who lives there is so accustomed to everything as to find it invisible, but it is so far beyond the understanding of your listener as to seem like magic? How do you get to actually telling the story, when the underpinnings would take a year to explain?

Yoon Ha Lee, the master who wrote Ninefox Gambit, gets around this dilemma by explaining almost nothing at all. The reader is plunged into the river of narrative facefirst, mercilessly, and had better learn to swim–because the water is picking up speed.

Ninefox Gambit is a piece of military science fiction set in a world whose cultural mores, technology, history, are all beyond our easy understanding. If it is in our own future, this book is set so far ahead as to be unrecognizable. But if the world is as opaque as a river full of silt, still the characters are as sharp as the sunlight off a fishscale. Cheris would be Asian, if she were from Earth; her hair is dark, she uses chopsticks and has a fondness for quick-pickled vegetables with her rice. These things are recognizable, comfortable touchstones for me personally in a book that is full of so much that is alien. If Cheris were a 21st-century American, she’d also be considered a lesbian; her people don’t have a word for it.

(Do you have a word for a woman whose hair is one inch longer than another woman’s? It goes unremarked-upon.)

The universe, or at least the vast number of planets under control of the empire for which Kel Cheris fights, operates under a technology that requires consent to function. Specifically, it is the calendar that requires consent, the sacred days and the unremarkable ones, the hours and the minutes. As long as the people in a system operate under the empire’s calendar, the empire’s technology works there, including its “exotics,” weapons that can fold space, or cause radiation to emit from every entrance (doorways, windows, open mouths, nostrils, pores…), or shatter its victims like cheap candy glass. This agreement is maintained through strict, society-wide adherence to calendar holidays. Not the fun kind where you might get off work early and throw a picnic, but the kind where heretics are tortured in incredibly horrific ways, and everyone gathers around the far-future-television-analogue to witness and to meditate on what they see.

(Miss viewing one of those events, and you risk being the guest of honor at the next one. It is not very difficult to do something which would see you accused of heresy. So the wheels of Empire are greased.)

Captain Kel Cheris does what she is told, largely. She cares about the people under her command, but she understands that when she decided to pledge herself to the Kel, the warrior class, she gave up her life to death, and that all those she commands had done the same.  When she sees a way to maybe win a battle that is just a little bit heretical, she goes for it–and as a result she sees her command stripped from her and her company shattered. To redeem herself, she is given the opportunity to develop a tactic for taking back the Fortress of Scattered Needles, an outpost which has been suborned by heretics. Find a way to do that, she is told, and you may regain your command and keep your life.

The problem is, there’s no straightforward way to do it. The Fortress of Scattered Needles is a nexus with an almost-impenetrable defense, and any empire general hoping to attack it will find that her own weapons will not work, due to the heresy crazing the calendar. There is one who could have done it, when he lived…the Immolation Fox, the mad traitor Shuos Jedao. He was not Kel, but he worked with the Kel; even badly injured, he took the battle of Candle Arc with eight-to-one odds. And then four battles later, he annihilated his own entire fleet, taking his opponents’ fleet with it, and shot all his prized officers in the head. He was executed, and his soul has been kept locked in stasis for the last several centuries, brought out only rarely to win unwinnable battles.

So the strategy that Kel Cheris devises is, wake up the murderer Shuos Jedao, and assign him to me. And he is so assigned–anchored to her body, that is, as a shadow who whispers in her ear and flickers in her mirror. She’s given a rank she has not earned (so that the other Kel, literally programmed to obey commands from superiors, will follow her) and given a small fleet, pointed at the enemy, and set loose. She wants to win, and she wants to survive. But Jedao does not sleep, and for all that he is dead, he is not powerless. Cheris must use his experience and military brilliance without falling prey to either herself–and she grows more and more certain that to make it through this situation, she’s going to need to understand why he did what he did, four hundred years ago.

To say this book is complicated is an understatement. It makes you work for your satisfaction, but it is never plodding or slow, and it does not get weighed down by its own backstory. The battles get ugly, the tortures inflicted on heretics are ghastly. But despite that, there are moments of real beauty, both natural and technological. And maybe more important, the book reinforces, over and over again, that the people on all sides of a battle are people. They have favorite candies and sorts of pickled cabbage, they have hobbies, dislikes, personal traditions. Cheris has a fondness for serialized dramas that anyone who’s ever been in a fandom would recognize. So it is that when Lee writes of a million dead at the battle of Candle Arc, the reader can not help but be reminded that it is not just a number. There is bravery, but not much in the way of machismo; Cheris’s own martial skill is something she is quietly proud of, but she is not given to braggadocio. Being resigned to death is not the same as longing for it; being awake is not the same as being alive. And in a war where the loss of thousands might be a skirmish, it can be difficult to tell who is the more human: one’s commanding officers, or the undead murderer murmuring in one’s own skull.

This is not a piece of traditional, hyper-masculine military SF. While there is loyalty and the love of comrades, patriotism is not held up as a moral ideal–more it is a tool, like a calendrical blade, that can be used against your enemy only in certain terrain. Not even the main character believes that might makes right, but simply that might makes, for a little while, some silence. There is respect for superiors and those more experienced, but there’s also an understanding that there are different forms of corruption, and that the longer one lives, the likelier one is to succumb to them. But this book does share one thing with so many of the others in its genre, and that’s the idea that as long as you can still fight, there is hope.

Content warnings: Torture and other violence (coldly described rather than in a fashion to titillate, but it ranges from one-on-one to starship fleet against fleet, and the weaponry used is sometimes the stuff of nightmare). Sexual assault (again, not explicit). A very great deal of character death.

FINAL SCORE: A rare five out of five stars. Technically and narratively spectacular.