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This Is How You Lose the Time War Summary, Characters and Themes

In “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” co-authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone craft a riveting science fiction narrative that pits two rival agents, Red and Blue, against each other in a sprawling time war. 


Representing the technologically advanced Agency and the nature-centric Garden, respectively, Red and Blue initially fulfill their roles by altering history’s fabric to ensure their sides’ victory. However, their anonymous taunts evolve into a profound connection, with letters that bridge time and space, blossoming into a forbidden love.

Saga Press released the first edition of this acclaimed novel in 2019, embedding a narrative filled with profanity, violence, and the darker aspects of humanity within its pages. As agents dedicated to their causes, Red and Blue navigate the complexities of their missions, only to find their loyalties tested by their growing affection for each other.

Red, an agent of the Agency, operates under the belief that technology can engineer away basic human needs, aiming for a future dominated by machines. In contrast, Blue serves Garden, a society that values nature and views language and individuality as threats to communal harmony. 

Despite their allegiances, the agents find solace and understanding in each other, challenging the war’s necessity and their roles within it.

The novel escalates when Red suspects the Agency’s surveillance, confirmed by a confrontation in Russia where she is ordered to betray Blue. Defying orders, Red warns Blue, who, despite promises, ingests a lethal poison to protect Red from suspicion. 

As Blue succumbs, Red dedicates herself to a mission of resurrection, utilizing Blue’s genetic material to craft a disguise and infiltrate Garden, ultimately saving Blue by administering an antidote during her childhood.

Their love outlasting conflict, Red and Blue escape their factions to forge a life together, hidden within the folds of time. 

This Is How You Lose the Time War Summary



Red embodies the pinnacle of technological advancement, serving the Agency with unmatched efficiency and precision. 

Initially, her identity is deeply intertwined with her role as an agent, showcasing unwavering loyalty and a belief in the Agency’s technocratic vision for the future. However, her interactions with Blue, marked by a blend of competition and curiosity, catalyze a profound transformation. 

Red evolves from a singularly focused agent into a complex character capable of deep love and defiance. Her journey is one of self-discovery, challenging her beliefs and the very foundation of her existence. 

Red’s actions, particularly her decision to save Blue at great personal cost, underscore her bravery, ingenuity, and capacity for love, marking her as a character who transcends her initial programming for something far more human.


Blue is the embodiment of Garden’s ideals, a nature-based society that values the collective over the individual. Initially, she mirrors Red’s dedication to her cause, executing her missions with precision and a deep-seated belief in Garden’s philosophy

However, Blue’s character arc is defined by her relationship with Red, which serves as a catalyst for questioning her values and the nature of the war itself. Blue’s evolution from a loyal agent to a lover willing to risk everything for Red highlights her complexity, intelligence, and emotional depth. 

Her willingness to confront her own vulnerability and to ultimately choose love over duty reveals a profound strength and resilience. 

Blue’s journey is not just one of rebellion against the constraints of her society, but also an exploration of identity, love, and the power of connection.


1. The Power of Love Overcoming Boundaries

At the heart of the story lies the profound theme of love’s ability to transcend seemingly insurmountable barriers. 

Through the evolving relationship between Red and Blue, the narrative meticulously explores how affection and emotional intimacy can break down the walls of allegiance, ideology, and time itself. 

Despite originating from opposing factions in a relentless time war, their bond flourishes through secret correspondences, revealing a shared humanity that defies their programmed duties. 

This theme not only challenges the notion of predetermined roles within conflict but also showcases love as a rebellious act against the constraints of their worlds, ultimately suggesting that connections at a personal level hold the potential to redefine futures.

2. The Fluidity and Construct of Identity

El-Mohtar and Gladstone delve into the complex terrain of identity, showcasing its malleable nature against the fixed backdrop of time. Red and Blue, agents of starkly different societies, begin their journey with clear, unwavering senses of self, molded by their affiliations to the Agency and Garden. 

However, as their relationship deepens, their identities begin to unfurl and reshape, influenced by their exposure to opposing viewpoints and the intimate knowledge of the other’s world. This theme is further complicated by Red’s daring act of transformation to save Blue, blurring the lines between self and other, past and present. 

The authors compellingly argue that identity is not static but a dynamic construct, continually rewritten by our experiences, choices, and the people we dare to love.

3. The Futility of Conflict and the Search for Meaning 

Embedded within the time-traveling escapades and strategic manipulations of history is a poignant commentary on the futility of endless conflict. The Time War, with its ceaseless cycle of attack and counterattack, serves as a metaphor for the pointlessness of perpetual strife, where victories are ephemeral, and the cost is often the erasure of individuality and the suppression of dissenting voices. 

Through the lens of Red and Blue’s relationship, the narrative questions the value of such conflict, suggesting that the true battles worth fighting are those that affirm life, foster connections, and celebrate the beauty of the universe. 

This theme culminates in the realization that words, art, and love possess the transformative power to challenge the status quo and offer pathways to peace and understanding, emphasizing the importance of seeking meaning beyond the battlefield.

Final Thoughts

“This Is How You Lose the Time War” masterfully blends science fiction with romance, creating a perfect narrative about the power of connection across the vast expanse of time and space. 

The novel’s exploration of themes such as the futility of war, the transcendence of love, and the quest for individual identity against the backdrop of a larger conflict offers a compelling reflection on human nature and the timeless quest for understanding and unity. 

The unique storytelling method, through letters exchanged by characters, adds a deeply personal touch to the epic scope of the time war, emphasizing how individual relationships can defy the impersonal forces of conflict and technology.