Authors: Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
Publication: Jo Fletcher Books, 16th July 2019
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.
Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?
I had a real mixed experience with this book. What I want to make clear from the outset is that there are a lot of people who will absolutely love this 200 page novella. There were parts I loved, and there were parts I really couldn’t get to grips with or I felt let it down as a whole, which only gave me average overall enjoyment. I was in fact going to stop reading at 50% but am glad I continued as it improved past the halfway mark.
The main positive I found was the stunning prose. I have never read a more beautifully written book. It reads like poetry, like Shakespeare. The words ooze from the page like a meandering river of molten gold. For that alone I can recommend this book to at least experience this! The descriptions just make you feel good, the effect the same as looking at a beautiful painting or a sunset over the ocean.
The problem is, the abundance of flowery language can border on whimsical and pretentious, especially when prioritised at the expense of the plot. Eventually it becomes exhausting and overbearing. I found myself becoming frustrated with the lack of focus on the story and subsequently not appreciating the beauty of the prose.
On the plot, for the first half of the book at least, it feels pretty vague. Where in most stories the plot is at least in part a driving force, it feels more of an afterthought here, more of a “how can we fit a story around the interactions of these two characters and base it on time travel?” It is a backdrop for the story of the two characters’ developing relationship, which is the only thing looked at in detail.
The time travelling aspect for example, which was one of the main marketing sells, wasn’t explored in any depth. There was even a point where an Apatosaurus (a genus of Sauropod – not one of the dinosaur groups theorised to have feathers) was described as “ruffling its feathers” which suggests that the time travel wasn’t taken all that seriously. There was no real explanation into how it worked, what the agents were doing exactly or what the characters of Red and Blue were really trying to achieve (other than playing their part in the minimally described war between the Garden and the Agency in influencing and guiding their preferred version of history.) These historical and future events could have been explored to add more substance to the book, especially given in the synopsis the characters are apparently “hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions.” Within the space of about 5 letters they seem to have disregarded the importance of this war and their role within it, consumed by their blossoming romance. Despite this, the romance is a plus point in many ways and it is enjoyable to witness a mutual intelligence and appreciation for the nuances of life drive two opposing agents towards one another. It is at times heartwarming, and heart wrenching, and you do definitely feel a strong desire to see Red and Blue find happiness and a solution to their situation.
The series of letters, which is what most of the book consists of, is a novel technique and certainly has its merits. It does stop it reading like a traditional novel/novella though which may affect the feeling of immersion for some readers. As mentioned above this also limits the worldbuilding or overall depth of the story and world this is taking place in. It’s certainly possible that the authors never intended to do much worldbuilding or give much information about the world, clearly choosing to focus on the characters. For me personally, I just couldn’t fully enjoy it due to an enticing and intriguing time travel war only being a backdrop to the story. If you don’t care about the events or the Time War so much as this character relationship told within it, this could be a 5 star read for you. And for those who don’t mind a divergence from the story but are looking for a page turner, after the 50% mark, it does get more exciting and more things do actually happen in the story. Just don’t expect a great deal of focus on anything past the love of the two characters or for their thoughts to be on anything but the other one of them.
For readers looking for the ‘fast paced’ ‘tour through time,’ ‘science fiction adventure’ described in this book’s description, you’d probably be better looking elsewhere.