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, #11: Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict In Korea, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager

Brothers_at_war

This book, frankly, exhausted me. In terms of the information presented, it's very good; you're not going to find a better English-language one-volume history of the entire period in which the Two Koreas have existed. She places the war itself in the proper context of the long-view of Korea's divided history, and gives much more focus to Korean impetus and sources than you'd usually get in the American-centric histories that dominate the reading lists here. That said, though; it's just a bit of a slog to _read_. The level of detail occasionally approaches overwhelming, and Jager doesn't provide the best narrative flow in which to situate, comprehend, and retain that detail.

To start with, if you don't already have a good grounding in the war itself, this book is not going to give it to you. For example, there's much more in this book about the rebellion of POW's at Koje-Do than there is regarding, say, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The latter is covered, but not to the depth of events elsewhere. And that's FINE; I believe her whole point is to restore the agency the Koreans usually lose in English-language histories of the conflict, and therefore she chooses to focus more on events that haven't been covered well before. Arguably, in terms of KOREAN history, the rebellion at Koje-Do mattered more than the retreat from Chosin. Just know that going in, and read something like Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter" to get grounded on the war itself.

More problematically, even though she does present a lot of detail overall on the war era, it's provided in a weirdly staggered way that makes it hard to follow the actual chronological flow of events. Or at least it was for me.

That said, the book also succeeds on a lot of fronts, particularly on the level of new information presented regarding the domestic South Korean front and the entirety of the Communist side. While again obviously focused on presenting the Koreans as their own actors with their own methods, she does not shrink away from showing that the Rhees and Il Sungs of the time had their actions strongly circumscribed by what their ideological big brothers would allow. For all of the loud trumpeting of the North Korean autarkic ideal of "juche" they have subjected everyone to over the decades, the historical record makes it clear that, at almost no times throughout its history, has North Korea been able to decide entirely on its own course. Rather, the South Koreans have had more success making their American patrons react to their own actions than the North Koreans ever did at getting the Chinese or the Soviet/Russians to theirs.

Jager also does well in presenting an honest picture of the economic race of each Korea in the post-war era; it sounds surprising to consider that North Korea was actually probably ahead of the South Koreans economically until the mid-1960's, even after being bombed mostly flat by the American Air Force in the war, but the South Korean leadership was that bad at caring about or knowing how to improve the lot of the average citizen for quite some time.

I enjoyed Jager most when she discusses how the poor economic performance of early South Korean governments led to civilian dissatisfaction with western-style democracy and, instead, resulted in support for the Communist cause that seemed to be doing a better job of raising the standard of its people at the time. This carries into the reaction and repression that stripped away rights from the South, but also provided the stability necessary for genuine economic growth to finally occur. In turn, that increasing wealth empowered the people to where they were able to force a return of democracy. Meanwhile, throughout, the North simply became increasingly poor, isolated, and unstable.

Overall, I can give Brothers at War a qualified recommendation; if you're well-versed in the war itself that is the dominating event of this entire era, and can deal with the occasionally confusing and meandering nature of the narrative, this book will fill in the periods before and following the war better than anything else you're going to find in English today. If not, I'd recommend reading some dedicated histories of the war itself first, and/or waiting to see if anybody else decides to try and replicate Jager's work here in the next few years in a clearer, more cohesive fashion.