Greetings, Time Scout!
You've just stumbled upon one of the finest archives in the timespan: the Time Scouts Book Club! In this selection from the archives, you'll find a reading guide for This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
Here's what NPR had to say about it when they named it one of NPR's Best Books of 2019:
Two time-traveling agents from warring futures, working their way through the past, begin to exchange letters—and fall in love in this thrilling and romantic book from award-winning authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
You can use this guide, originally shared in the Time Scouts Newsletter over 4 weeks in 2020, for a reading group or to read on your own!
Why wait? The time is now!
This Is How You Lose the Time War
Week 1 (Chapters 1-6)
Hello, Time Scouts!
We're so excited to start The Time Scouts Book Club with This Is How You Lose the Time War.
We hope you've procured a copy of the book, but in case you haven't, you can find physical, digital, or audio copies wherever books are sold! (We recommend using Indiebound and Bookshop, two e-commerce resources dedicated to supporting local bookshops.
Moving on! Your mission, as you've chosen to accept, is to read the first six chapters of this time-tastic book by next Friday, April 24th.
To aid you in this mission, we've included below thought-provoking questions, additional reading, and a CONTEST. But let's start with a fun fact.
THIS IS THE FUN FACT:
In a book full of tiny details that provide glimpses of this future, one of the pervasive and fascinating is Red and Blue's reference to the past and future as "upthread and downthread."
Little flourishes of creative license about how the future might look are one of the delights of science fiction, but even more delightful is when science fiction illuminates something about the world as it is today.
And speaking of time vertically instead of horizontally (as English speakers do with prepositions like "before" and "after") is, to put it plainly, already a thing!
This article from The Conversation discusses how Mandarin Chinese uses a vertical time axis, much like the one employed by Red and Blue:
The word xià (down) is used to talk about future events, so when referring to “next week” a Mandarin Chinese speaker would literally say “down week”. The word shàng (up) is used to talk about the past – so “last week” becomes “up one week”.
The article goes on to describe how this difference in language affects differences in thinking, and even spatial reasoning. I recommend the article, but I also recommend considering how Red and Blue's thinking of time on a vertical axis affects their strategies and their relationships with themselves/each other.
Which brings us to the discussion questions!
1. Try thinking on a vertical time axis, with memories above and the future below. Does it change how you think about the past or future? Is it fun, icky? Other?
2. Red and Blue come from very different futures, clues about which we only just start to learn about in these first chapters. Do you see yourself belonging more in The Agency or Garden. Why?
3. Red and Blue find more and more inventive ways to leave each other messages. If you were in the Time War, and sent to this time, what creative way would you find to leave a message for your frenemy so only they found it? Bonus points if you can use an official Floaty Pen from the 826LA Time Travel Mart.
And that's all for week 1 of The Time Scouts Book Club!
P.S. Since Red and Blue have a fondness for postscripts, here's a little more additional reading. It's just one of the many highfalutin literary references Blue loves to make. Did you spot the others?
WEEK 2 (Chapters 7-12)
Dearest Time Scouts,
How does Mrs. Leavitt advise that we start a Time Scouts Book Club Week 2 e-mail? We may never know, because it turns out Mrs. Leavitt is from a different strand than ours! (If you happen to be in this strand and are looking for writing guides, you can find plenty through our friends at the Time Travel Mart.)
But whatever she would want, we think Mrs. Leavitt would approve of (or at least tolerate) starting it with a…
What an exciting thread this book is going down. And what exciting responses we’ve received so far from you! We especially appreciated this response to Discussion Question #3 (How to secretly leave a message for your frenemy) from a Time Scout embedded in Cambridge:
Besides setting up an amazing time travel store for them to discover in Strand 826 that would sell a floaty pen where a person that happens to look like my frenemy enters the floaty pen time machine and then it would SPELL their name as it exited the other side *(bonus points???)*, I would know exactly when they would be looking up at the sky, and then have a sky-writing airplane spell out his name and then have him use AR so he could read the rest of the message.
Bonus points granted! And speaking of bonus points, lets throw a few downthread to Time Scout #198 for thinking outside the box on Discussion Question #2 (Do you identify more with Garden or the Agency?):
Personally, I take a more forward (downward) approach; The Garden and the Agency are one and the same, the ebb and flow of the time war crashing against the limits of time itself. The waves crash but the water remains. Not so much extremes as different points on the möbius strip, keep going far enough and you're back where you started.
Please keep those responses coming! Not only do they convince our Commandant that this mission is worthwhile, but they give us a warm and fuzzy feeling as well.
Speaking of things that leave us with warm and fuzzy feelings…
A NEW INTERESTING FACT
While reading this book, we’re struck by the way it doesn’t just depict time travel, but the sensation of time traveling. So many bits and pieces of societies and environments familiar and foreign hurtle past as we follow the thread (sorry!) that it’s impossible to chase down all of them.
One such detail we found ourselves too enchanted by not to explore was this little morsel from Blue, when writing about the hidden difficulties of counterfeiting during Tudor period England.
“Also, standardized spelling wasn’t yet a feature of English.”
Woah! What?! That would have been helpful during a few second grade pop quizzes, but we digress. Fascinated by this idea of standard versus non-standard spelling, we stumbled upon this article, “A brief history of English spelling,” from The English Spelling Society.
If the simple existence of an English Spelling Society intrigues you, we implore you to go down the rabbit hole. But for those who just want a taste, here’s our favorite fact from this history of how English spelling developed into its current standard form:
"The printers also tended to lengthen words. This was driven partly by money – they were paid by the number of lines printed – and partly by page layout, such as making the right-hand side of the text line up neatly. Many simple spellings became more complex, eg frend > friend, hed > head, seson > season, fondnes > fondnesse, shal > shall. However in this the printers were only following the centuries-old practice of the legal scribes, who were paid by the inch for their writing.”
Again, I’ve put it on my to-do list to go back and have a word with the greedy printers of the late 1400’s. They cost me at least a few spelling bee wins! And that brings us too...
Reminder: these questions are for you first and foremost, but if you’d like to share your answers, we’d love to see them! (And you’ve surely thought of questions we haven’t! Please share those!)
- Red hates poets. Or does she? In Chapter 1, she ponders the ramifications of letting the wrong person live: “A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist, or worse, a poet.” In Chapter 7, in the midst of hating the infinite Atlantises, she ponders the worlds that have no Atlantis; that “know the place only through dreams and mad poets’ madder whispers.” Is Red’s ridicule of poet’s personal or a function of The Agency? Are poets neutral in the Time War or do they belong to (maybe beget) Garden? Bonus consideration: so far in the book, Red only talks of poets. Blue only talks of poetry.
- When Red writes to Blue, “I try not to think of you in the same way twice,” this is, on the surface, a safety measure. But it clearly has a secondary effect (intended or un-) of letting Red see Blue everywhere in the worlds around her. Have you ever changed the lens through which you thought about someone or something you care about? What effect did it have? Were you changing the lends to protect yourself or for other reasons?
- Chapter 12 (and with it, the assigned reading for the week) ends on a doubling, if not tripling, down on a recommendation for the book, Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison. Never having heard of it, we looked it up to find this engrossing article written by Amal El-Mohtar, co-author of Time War! We think it’s delightful to hide a glowing recommendation within the pages of fiction. If you could hide a book recommendation someplace, where would it be? What would you recommend?
Well, we think that’s enough for now. We can’t wait to hear all of your thoughts and see what’s in store for Red and Blue! And remember—submit your merit badge submissions! Until then…
WEEK 3 (Chapters 13-18)
(Red and Blue find new names for each other, so why shouldn't we?) There are multiple invocations of the millennia-old boardgame Goin this section of the book (Go is actually believed to be the oldest continuously played boardgame in existence!).
If you've never played, well, now is as good a time as any to learn. But if you don't want to give a new game a whirl right now, the thing to know is that Go is simple, abstract, and the object is to completely surround your opponents pieces on the board while they attempt to surround yours.
It's a fitting metaphor for Red and Blue's correspondence, but just as richly seems to represent the reading experience. In the beginning, the back and forth we witness feels methodical but abstract, less a story of a relationship and more a record of one.
But as we near the final section of the book, all the pieces placed earlier have begun to surround us into this final gambit of Red and Blue's story.
(Have we sold you on Go yet? Come on, it's fun!) Either way, all this ties in just a little with this week’s...
Once again, we had excellent dispatches from all sorts of threads. This one from a Time Scout embedded in Nebraska spoke to the deceptive complexity of the book that we may be just starting to understand!
Normally, I tear through books like a six-legged wolf, and this one would be gone in an evening. Instead, I have slowed down, slowly working my way through, and noticing things I might not have otherwise, which is how I might hide a book recommendation. What better way to hide something but to not hide it at all, and only make it look like something not to spare a second glance?
We couldn't agree more, Scout (and we appreciated you inserting your own hidden references to your letter)! The depth of detail was touched upon by another Scout, who provided us with our interesting fact for the week!
This one's a twofer! As one of our dedicated scouts pointed out, one example of the eye-catching turns of phrase in this book is:
"apophenic as a haruspex"
This one caught our attention as well, but we hadn't bothered to break it down, so we appreciate your reminding us.
Apophenia is the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things.
A haruspex was a person in ancient Rome who practiced the divinity of sacrificed animal entrails.
This is, typical of Red, very irreverent and cheeky, as she admits plainly for the first time that she enjoys Blue and their correspondence.
When she says that she watches the world for Blue's signs, "apophenic as a haruspex," she is making fun of ancient religious figures, implying their sacred practice was a silly and futile search for meaning.
But by comparing herself to them, she also admits weakness. Perception is such a vital part of her toolkit as an agent, and to be connecting meaningless dots puts her at a disadvantage.
So this snide remark meant to soften her admission of feelings for Blue actually only makes her more vulnerable. It's mind-breaking stuff already, and then you remember that in an earlier chapter, Red actually did hide a message for Blue in an animal's entrails!
So there you go! Two interesting facts wrapped up in quite a few other things for you to mull on. And just give you a tiny bit more to mull on...
1. By the end of this section, we've met both Garden and Commandant. Were they what you expected? Did either come off as the dominant leader? Did either seem to have an ethical high ground? Did you learn anything more about the Time War by meeting its principal adversaries?
2. We've now seen Red on the go, hopping from mission to mission, strand to strand. In these moments, the writers build a whole world in a sentence, such as, "She races gravcycles through a crystal forest coursing with the brilliant pulse of human beings whose physical bodies have been rendered, like bacon fat, until the fragrance of their minds expands to fill all space." Try it yourself! Build a world in one sentence. Feel free to use Red as a pawn in it if needed. She an handle it.
(PS if you liked this prompt and want more, check out the Writer Emergency Pack, available from our friends at the Time Travel Mart!)
3. The character who aways follows Red and Blue, invisibly taking souvenirs from their missions, began the book being referred to as "a seeker." In these chapters, the character becomes named, "Seeker." Did you notice the shift? What do you think it means? Is Seeker definitely Red's shadow?
We can't wait to hear your thoughts as we race on our gravcycles towards what can only be a thrilling and complex conclusion.
If you have a friend who may be interested in the Time Scouts Book Club, be sure to send them to the link below!
Until then, everything relatively!
WEEK 4 (Chapters 19-25)
Oh, Red! Oh, Blue!
Endings and beginnings have a habit of flipping inside out and backwards in time travel stories, and the final moments we spend with Red or Blue are no exception. We loved the way that details and motifs planted earlier in the story bloomed into their own in these final chapters.
Though it was thrilling to spend so much of the book flailing to keep up with these time traveling super spies, it was extremely gratifying to finally slow down enough to watch them plan and execute their final missions of the book.
Speaking of time travel (though aren't we always), Chapter 19 is the first and only instance of either agent referring to themself as a time traveler. Red, hatching her plan, tries to take comfort in a memory of Blue but cannot. "She thinks, Some time traveler I am."
But there's another concept that is ever-present, but never named until the end of the book, and that bring us to...
Steganography! Messages hidden within other messages. The whole book is about time travelers and steganography, yet neither are mentioned until the final few chapters. Even though we appreciated the authors not needing to hold our hands through these wild concepts, it was nice to get a tiny explainer towards the end.
Steganography is a fascinating topic and a little digging showed a history nearly as fascinating as Red and Blue's.
All the way back in to 400s BC, historian Herodotus tells the story of Greek rules Histiaeus who concealed a message on the head of his most trusted servant by shaving the servant's head, marking a message onto his skin, and then waiting for the hair to grow back to send the servant (and the message) to one of his commanders. Talk about patience!
1. In chapter 19, once Red is finished working with the Experts to craft her poison pen letter for Blue, the lab is destroyed. Even though her orders are to save no one, she saved "what deaths history could spare." Is this a change in Red? Why does she care about those lives when all she cares about is Blue? Why, at a time when she's stopped caring about the Time War, does she still only save a few?
2. We get a lot of detail about the specifics of their time travel in these final chapters. For instance, we find out "Threads burn as you enter them" in Chapter 21. What other details did you notice? How did saving these specifics for the end affect your reading experience?
3. The discussion of losing or winning the time war mostly inhabit the beginning and end of the book. But there's a potential double meaning hidden in the title, This Is How You Lose the Time War. By attempting to go off the grid entirely, Red and Blue aren't just winning. They're also losing the Time War, as in leaving it behind. What else will they lose in their new life?
This brings the first ever Time Scouts Book Club guided reading selection to a close! What did you love about it? What did you love-but-would-maybe-make-some-changes-if-it-were-up-to-you? We'll be reaching back out next week with final thoughts as well as ideas for the next book, so please stay tuned!
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