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

How would you love someone on the opposite side of a war from you? How would you do it if your commanders could literally read your thoughts and know if you were consorting or even thinking about consorting with the enemy?

*This Is How You Lose the Time War* aims to answer that question, in a wonderful short novel that reads almost more, at times, like romantic poetry than it does genre fiction.

Honestly, what sci-fi is there is present just to provide the loose conceits necessary to weave what becomes a pretty mind-bending love story by the end of it all. Brief snippets of impossible but, in this story, assumed technologies are hinted at, used, and dispatched in a paragraph or two, in a way that will infuriate the typical hard-sci-fi fan that wants detailed explanations for how these magics actually work. That said, lovers of literature will adore how these elements are integrated into what is otherwise just a very intimate story about a relationship between two people on opposite sides of a conflict.

I don’t want to get much more into it; the joy in reading this (very short, so just read it already) novel is in how each new weird thing unfolds to the reader. It’s a very satisfying tale well told, and that should be all the recommendation you need.

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918, by G. J. Meyer

I’ve read a number of single-volume histories of WWI over the years but the short review of THIS one is simply: if I’m asked for a recommendation, Meyer’s work is the one I’ll provide.

WWI is a massive, convoluted mess of a conflict to try to shrink down to one book. Previous attempts that I’ve read (Keegan and Gilbert’s come to mind) are good in their own ways, but lack either a proper focus on what I think are the real lessons of the war (absolute shit leadership across all countries on both the political and military levels, and the frankly nauseating loss and destruction that resulted from that), in favor of a too-detailed focus on the military campaigns which, with few exceptions, amounted to: they tried the same thing that failed 20 times prior and, to everyone’s surprise, it failed again. Or I plain didn’t like the writing. Even a GOOD book on the entirety of WWI is, let’s be honest, gonna be a slog. So the author has to bring some writerly chops to the endeavor or it’s going to be a failure.

One example of how Meyers tries to deal with this hit me with his choice of title for Chapter 18:

Gallipoli Again, and Poland, and…

That’s the actual full chapter title. I can see maybe some particularly ass-wedged people thinking the author is making light of absolutely dreadful events, but I read that and was like “Yes, EXACTLY”. It conveys the awful repetitive nature of the mistakes and follies being committed by frankly everyone with any authority whatsoever on either side of the conflict by that particular point in the narrative. The book was bordering on feeling like a slog at that point, not through any fault of the writing, but simply because there’s no way to not read what boils down to “the Entente/Central Powers launched another offensive. It achieved 1/16th of its planned first day goals after two weeks of brutal combat, then bogged down into final failure. Three hundred thousand men died. Nine months later, they tried the exact same plan again to the same effect” for the fifth straight time and not feel like you’re in some awful, blood-soaked Groundhog Day that is also somehow… kind of boring.

Meyers alleviates the stultifying banal brutality with Background chapters that are interspersed in between each chapter of the main narrative. These intermissions are used to do little deep dives into specific topics, such as the life of long-ruling but ill-fated Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria-Hungary, or the Armenian Genocide, etc.

Alternating between the main narrative and these targeted topics gives Meyers a good way to give the reader a break from the aforementioned numbing slog of incompetency and disaster that was this entire war, so I applaud that choice.

By the end of the book, I felt like I had had my knowledge of this conflict strongly refreshed and, in some areas, somewhat enhanced. Meyers focuses more on the personal relationships (which were frankly almost always animosities, and almost always to the detriment and death of tens of thousands of regular soldiers. God, the general and politicians in this war FUCKING SUCKED even by the already-low historical standards of generals and politicians) and how those impacted strategy and tactics than the other generalists in this field, and I think to better effect. Going into great detail on the 17th failed offensive of a given front doesn’t really tell the reader much new; explaining why a specific leader chose to do so and how that led to their eventual and long-overdue sacking much, much later at least provides a bit of payoff that Ypres II or Brusilov IV fails to.

Meyers does dig deeper into the actual military doings at the front once some leaders who saw that new things needed to be tried achieved enough personal power to do so; rolling artillery barrages, concentrated tank drives, shock assaults… the inventors and deployments of these various tactics that actually managed to move the front lines are discussed in adequate detail.

In the end, while Meyers doesn’t bring any particularly new interpretations or primary source material to this book, he does make the right authorial choices regarding what of the voluminous available matter should be focused on, and how to tell that story well. I give this book a solid 4/5 recommendation.

The Books of 2016, #12: The Borgias: The Hidden History, by G. J. Meyer

The_BorgiasG.J. Meyer has a shtick. He writes “provocative” histories about “provocative” subjects that are mostly designed to help him stack cheddah by serving as the basis for “provocative”, historical-ish drama series on cable TV.

You may recall his earlier book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, (and, man, revel in the sheer clickbaitiness of that very title) which was the source material for the BBC series, much like The Borgias provided the basis for Showtime’s canceled series of the same name. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it entertaining, but also ludicrous. Entertaining simply because you’d have to work very hard to write a boring book about the Tudors. Ludicrous because of the second aspect of G.J. Meyer’s shtick: his books almost always go against the “conventional wisdom” and sport theses that make pure academic historians spit blood. For example, the gist of The Tudors was, really, that Henry wasn’t an absolute bastard of a monster. Somehow. When, in fact: he totes was.

Likewise, The Borgias: The Hidden History, in which Meyer tries to argue that the Borgias were not the monsters that almost all of history has made them out to be, but were rather just typical of any ennobled family of the time in how they used their wealth and power to reinforce each other and that, further, much of the horribleness attributed to them is outright false. To Meyer's credit, I think he makes a much stronger case here than he did with The Tudors.

The book makes its case by alternating chapters between the main chronological narrative of the three primary Borgias (Rodrigo the Pope, Cesare the alleged inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and Lucrezia, possibly the most vilified woman of the Middle Ages) and what I’d call “context” chapters. The context chapters are quite useful in terms of situating the reader in how, say, the Papacy worked during the era in which the Borgias were active with it. Likewise, he explains Italian politics, international diplomacy… basically any topic where the reader may have an understanding of how it operates _today_, but NOT how it operated then. So these chapters help educate the user AND reinforce one of Meyer's main arguments: that while a lot of what the Borgias did may seem unsavory to modern mores, they were not at all out of line with contemporary standards (an argument Meyer makes, I think, successfully over the course of the book) and, actually, were near-saintly when compared to other major figures of the day (this argument, not so much).

At any rate, the framework is very solid and keeps the user properly informed on the context needed to understand the narrative events as they unfold.

As for that narrative, I wish the writing of it were more exciting. For being about an era positively brimming with strong personalities, amazing new art, sex, epic violence, etc., the book is a bit of a slog to get through.

Part of the slog is due to the voluminous chat about sourcing interspersed throughout. To Meyer’s credit, most of this is segregated from the main narrative in a way that makes it easy to skip over if source-talk ain’t your jam. I think this is partially an over-reaction to the eyerolls that greeted his thesis about Henry VIII in The Tudors being actually a nice guy, and partially the usual work of a historian going into detail about their sources to validate their interpretation of them. I found it interesting, and believe he did an effective job of highlighting how his sources (and, to be honest, primary sources on the Borgias are remarkably limited so he’s quite thorough about it), once analyzed for bias, actually rather strongly support his own arguments. You may disagree, but I didn’t have that sense of “wow, this author is really contorting things to make it work here” that I sometimes get when reading through a writer’s own analysis of their source materials as related to their argument.

Overwhelming sourcing chat aside, Meyer does move the reader along from the rise of Rodrigo from minor Castilian nobility to leader of the Church, through Cesare’s brilliant but notorious and violent rise and even more notorious fall, and finishes up with a good discussion of the whorification of Lucrezia. While the least “action-packed” part of the story, the sections focusing on Lucrezia were the most interesting to me, as they are basically a textbook for how shoddily any woman who rose to any sort of prominence could be expected to be treated both by her contemporaries and by later writers. Of the three main subjects of the book, I think Meyer makes his most compelling case regarding history having given these folks a bad rap when it comes to the unfortunate Borgia sister/bargaining chip/marriage prize.

So, yeah, I think Meyer does a solid job of making his case, if overselling it a bit with both Rodrigo and Cezare, in this book, but really wish he had somehow injected the spirit of the age he is covering into his writing on it. People and events this interesting shouldn’t turn into quite so much of a slog when set down on paper.