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Time travel novels have the amazing ability to, well, straddle time. What I mean is, because they feature characters who travel between at least two different time periods, they inherently bring those time periods together. This can be really thought provoking as well as entertaining.
This unique ability of time travel novels means that these books either harken back to the past or project into the future (or, sometimes, both). If you’re interested in spending a little more time thinking about this, give the essay “Time Traveling Books: Historical Fiction or Speculative Fiction?” a read.
And while many time travel novels often feature complex mechanisms for time travel (such as Charles Yu’s fascinating how to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe), not all time travel requires a time machine. Take Octavia Butler’s Kindred — a true classic! Butler’s protagonist finds herself unwittingly thrust into the past at unpredictable moments in her life…an extremely perilous situation for a Black American woman who keeps finding herself in the antebellum South.
The future of literary time travel is just as exciting as its past and present. You can expect Stephen Graham Jones’s “historical slasher” comic series Earthdivers to premier this October. (Incidentally, some of Jones’ other books — like Ledfeather and The Bird is Gone — also dabble in time travel.) No matter when you look for it, there’s always a good time travel novel to be found.
Long Division by Kiese Lymon
Originally published in 2013, Kiese Laymon’s time warping novel about racism across the decades was republished in 2021. It’s the story of “City” Coldson, a teenager who spectacularly fails at a nationally televised spelling contest. His timeline begins in 2013, but shortly after being sent to stay with his grandmother in a small southern town things get…weird. Things take a metafictional turn for the character when he discovers a book called Long Division written in the 1980s by an author with his same name. And then 1964 makes an appearance, and before you know it, Laymon has taken you on a wild ride spanning half a century and confronting racism across the years.
The Mexican Flyboy by Alfredo Véa, Jr.
Simon Vegas acquired a time machine in Vietnam…and he’s been trying to get it in working order ever since. Once he gets it working, things get really wild really fast. Simon’s time machine has a focus: seeking out injustice and delivering its victims to a utopian afterlife. There are plenty of famous names sprinkled in there, but the real focus of this novel is on questions of power (or, perhaps more aptly, powerlessness), compassion and humanity, and trauma and justice. Since it’s Alfredo Véa, Jr. doing the writing, there’s a masterful blurring of genre lines and the larger question at the core of the time travel: is it real, or is it all in Simon’s head?
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
This is a time travel novel that feels uncannily timely. It’s a book that already gave readers a lot to think about, but given its release one year before the COVID-19 pandemic, the global context adds another layer of meaning. It’s 1981 and the US is in the middle of a deadly pandemic. (Sound familiar?) Frank is sick, but people in the future mastered time travel in order to try to subvert the pandemic. So Polly has contracted out her future in order to save him. Of course, when love and time travel happen, nothing ever goes smoothly — their plan to be reunited at a set time in a set location is ruined when Polly gets sent too far into the future. As Polly tries to find Frank, Lim’s novel asks deep questions about love, connection, and these troubled times we live in.
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Nix is a time traveler’s daughter, and she’s been seemingly everywhere and everywhen. It’s been a grand adventure…but then her dad is navigating toward an uncertain past: the year before Nix was born in the place where she was born. The problem is, Nix’s mother died in childbirth. The big question, then, is what her father intends to do when they get to when they’re going. And Kash, Nix’s mischievous love interest, throws another wrench into the works. Heilig’s novel is so hard to put down, and if you like The Girl From Everywherethe second book of the duology, The Ship Beyond Time, is also available!
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
It’s nearly impossible to not be at least mildly interested in a semi-epistolary novel co-authored by the likes of Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Their improbable protagonists are on opposite sides of a war: technology vs. biology (obvs, I’m being a bit reductive). And yet…love. Despite the improbability of it all, despite the war they’re caught up in, despite the very real danger their correspondence represents to each of them. Love.
The Perishing by Natashia Deón
This is an unconventional time travel novel, for sure. For starters, protagonist Lou is immortal. She’s also, apparently, an amnesiac, having woken up in an alley with no memory of her past. Set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, The Perishing follows Lou as she makes a name for herself and breaks all kinds of barriers as a professional journalist. But then she makes a new friend and is shocked to find that his face is one she’s been drawing for years. Deón crafts a fascinating mystery that will have you pondering all manner of ideas, big and small, long after you’ve finished the last page.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
How can you go wrong with a time travel novel featuring a secret agent protagonist? I would argue that you can’t. Kin Stewart is living the suburban lifestyle in San Francisco, but it’s not suburbia he needs to be rescued from. It’s his life, which is a facade while he waits for someone to come get him and return him to his real life over a century and a half in the future. But help takes almost two decades to show up, and in the meantime Kin has been living his life — complete with a wife and daughter. Chen’s novel is appealingly deep, exploring the many dynamics that define the self even as it entertains with its fresh take on time travel.
Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story by LeAnne Howe
Miko Kings is the oldest book on this list, but it’s a fascinating read. Howe’s novel follows an intriguing cast of characters as the Native American baseball team in Oklahoma, the Miko Kings, striving to win the championship. The year: 1907. Yup, that’s the same year Oklahoma (the majority of which was officially known as Indian Territory) was granted statehood by the United States. With that political history looming in the background, Hope Little Leader is caught up in some events that are far larger than his role as pitcher for the team. And then there’s the odd and brilliant Ezol Day, whose theories on time are intertwined with linguistics and Indigenous epistemologies. This book has it all: conspiracy, romance, and political scheming. To top it off, you’ll find some wonderfully non-standard textual elements here, like newspaper clippings and handwritten journal entries.
A Bubble of Time by Pepper Pace
What would you do if, in your 50s, you suddenly found yourself reliving your high school years as your actual 16-year-old self? That’s exactly what happens to Kenya Daniels in Pepper Pace’s hilarious and smart time travel novel A Bubble of Time. She’s 16 again, but with all of her half-century of lived experience alive and well in her memory. There’s a truly comedic element here for anyone who lived through the ’80s, because it’s pretty entertaining to follow Kenya as she is forced to revisit the wild decade as her younger self. But Pace’s time travel novel is also at turns thoughtful, heartwarming, and unexpected, too.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
What would you do if you could travel through time? What if you could travel through time, but only for a very short duration and without the ability to change the present? In Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s time travel novel, there’s a cafe in a basement in Tokyo where this is possible. But only from the cafe. With these interesting constraints on their time, patrons (and staffers) in the cafe time travel for small but profound reasons. It’s a strikingly beautiful meditation on the little regrets we carry with us throughout our lives. If you’re a fan of this book, you’ll be happy to know that it’s the first part of a trilogy; Tales from the Cafe came out two years ago and the third book, Before Your Memory Fades, is scheduled for release this November!
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
The Kingdoms is a wild ride! It’s historical fiction as much as it is a time travel novel. It opens with Joe Tournier’s confused arrival in 19th century England, but this is a very different England than the one you might have learned about in the history books: this England is a French colony. Shortly after his arrival, a mysterious postcard arrives. Not only is it written in English (a forbidden language in this alternate reality), but it’s addressed to him. As Joe seeks answers, he travels into Scotland (which is also an alternate Scotland) and beyond. It’s a captivating read — if you’ve ever read Pulley’s other works, this will come as no surprise.