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Future Days and Past Lives: The Best Time Travel Books

Posted on 2nd May 2024 by Mark Skinner

Prepare to have your mind blown and your heartstrings tugged by one of the year's standout novels, Kaliane Bradley's The Ministry of Time. Steeped in time travel (amongst many other themes) this unputdownable debut inspired us to curate a blog packed full of time-hopping, time-slipping goodness across multiple genres and styles. So buckle in, as you never know where we might end up... 

Weaving together romance, espionage, history and time travel, Kaliane Bradley's The Ministry of Time is an uncategorisable delight and one of the most exciting debuts of 2024. Whilst its melange of styles mark it out as unique, there is a rich history of books from different genres incorporating time travel tropes to tell a wider story. There is something of the smart comedy of The Eyre Affair in The Ministry of Time, as well as the heartwarming qualities of Before the Coffee Gets Cold and the page-turning suspense of 11.22.63. So without further ado let's take off on our own exciting voyage through over a century of time travel treasures.

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Revolving around the titular establishment set up to bring expatriates from the past to near-future London, this extraordinarily assured debut blends love story, time-travelling tale and state-of-the-nation commentary to terrifyingly clever and ferociously funny effect.
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Let's start with the classics. Generally regarded as the first science fiction novel to feature a time travel device, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine is arguably still the most famous time travel narrative ever. There is more than a hint of social comment about the relationships between the delicate, overground Eloi and primitive, underground Morlocks, but for real withering satire it is necessary to look across the Atlantic to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which lampoons everything from capitalism to monarchy, as Hank Morgan is transported from nineteenth-century Connecticut to sixth-century England by a bump on the head.

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An absolute cornerstone of the science fiction genre, Wells' breathless tale of a Victorian scientist journeying to the far future combines untrammelled imagination with sly social comment.
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One of the great early time travel novels, Twain's delicious satire finds a Connecticut mechanic set himself up as an all-powerful magician when he unexpectedly pitches up in sixth-century England.
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Moving into the twentieth century, time travel was used by authors to highlight either the madness or appalling legacy of horrific events. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 takes a scalpel to the disorientation of war, whilst Kindred by Octavia Butler brilliantly incorporates time travel to spotlight the brutality of slavery. Less rooted in the horrors of the real world but still sublimely chilling, Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand contains many a stark warning about the dangers of meddling with the past. That kind of history-changing interference is at the root of one of the most accomplished time travel opuses of the twenty-first century, as a time traveller attempts to thwart the assassination of President Kennedy in Stephen King's 11.22.63.

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One of the most trenchant and scabrous anti-war novels ever written, Slaughterhouse 5 turns science fiction cliches on their head as it pitches the hapless Billy Pilgrim into the heart of the Dresden bombing.
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An intellectually and emotionally profound meditation on the prejudices of the past and the ambiguous march of progress, Butler’s stunning time-travel narrative sees a Black woman thrown through points in history where her very presence could sign her death warrant.
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Lurching between 1960s Cornwall and a medieval world of intrigue and scandal, The House on the Strand deploys the well-worn trope of time travel to make more profound statements about social dislocation and dangerous obsession.
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The master storyteller weaves a page-turning story of time travel, forbidden love and the weight of history in this epic narrative about a man sent back to 1958 to try and avert the assassination of JFK five years later.
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With the obvious possibilities for second chances and life-altering do-overs, a number of modern novels have deftly exploited the tropes of time travel to tug expertly on the heartstrings. From the achingly bittersweet relationship at the core of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife to the sweeping time-slip love triangle of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and from the poignant exploration of identity through a journey to a younger self in Emma Straub's This Time Tomorrow to the stand-up-and-cheer time trips and alternate realities of Before the Coffee Gets Cold and The Midnight Library, the selection below is guaranteed to enchant and beguile.

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Deftly written and nimbly translated, Kawaguchi’s life-affirming tale of café-based time travel and symbolic hot beverages has all the hallmarks of a beloved cult classic.
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From the author of How to Stop Time comes this poignant, unique novel about regret, hope and forgiveness - and a library that houses second chances.
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Merging science fiction concepts with an exquisite love story, Niffenegger chronicles a heart-breaking, unique tale of a man who periodically changes age, and the enduring passion between him and his beloved.
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Bearing comparison to A Song of Ice and Fire and transformed into a hit TV show, Diana Gabaldon’s time-slip epic is an irresistible blend of adventure, romance and intrigue.
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Recounting a moving and endlessly charming story of connection and father-daughter relationships, This Time Tomorrow sees a woman on the verge of a mid-life crisis find her way back to her sixteen-year-old self.
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In recent years - and possibly spurred on by the success of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day - a number of authors have played with the idea of lives being lived over and over again. Critics were bowled over by Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, both of which featured protagonists who found that their deaths were merely the starting point for a whole fresh existence. The trope has been particularly popular in high-concept crime novels like Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - in which the eponymous aristocrat is doomed to 'relive' her death constantly until her murderer is identified - and Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister - where a mother will be pitched further and further into her past unless she can prevent her son from killing a stranger.

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This kaleidoscopic novel, which considers the many different paths one life can take, paints a portrait of the 20th Century like no other in an incredible feat of storytelling and imagination.
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Perfect reading for fans of Life After Life, North's beautifully wrought novel follows Harry August through a variety of repeated lives with immense compassion and power.
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A dazzling clever and completely unputdownable whodunit, Turton's audacious debut sees the eponymous aristocrat perish multiple times until a resourceful guest can solve the riddle of her murder.
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An unputdownable tale of a mother trying to prevent the murder her son has committed as she wakes up each morning to find herself further back in the past, Wrong Place Wrong Time is a riveting, tense, genre-bending novel that will stay with the reader long after the closing pages.
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You wouldn't find most of the books mentioned above in the science fiction section of your local Waterstones but there are, of course, plenty of tales written in that genre that apply dazzlingly clever concepts of time travel to their plotlines. The love story at the heart of El-Mohtar and Gladstone's This is How You Lose the Time War is meticulously rendered through interleaving time periods and stories-within-stories, whilst Ted Chiang's novella Story of Your Life - later filmed in Hollywood as Arrival - makes a stunning conceptual leap from language to time travel. Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility, meanwhile, incorporates ideas of parallel worlds into a time-hopping epic spanning Edwardian England and the Earth's far future.

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Lyrical, romantic and profoundly moving, El Mohtar and Gladstone’s apocalyptic opus frames science fiction and time travel within a sweeping literary narrative that even the most hardened naysayers of the genre will not be able to resist.
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Comprising the award-winning novella Story of Your Life alongside seven other intelligent and entertaining tales, this bravura collection from the science fiction maestro weaves vignettes of alien languages and angelic visitations.
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Another tour de force of imagination and dazzling construction from the author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, Mandel's audacious time travel novel intertwines the stories of an Edwardian exile in British Columbia and an Earth-hopping writer two centuries later.
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For all the weighty significance, nifty science and moral responsibility of time travel stories, it's well worth remembering that they are hugely entertaining - and some of them are absolutely hilarious. Time travel may only be one element of Jasper Fforde's insanely imaginative SF/crime thriller/comic meta-novel brew The Eyre Affair but it still plays a crucial part in its clockwork plotline, whilst Terry Pratchett's excursion into time travel concepts in Discworld novel Night Watch is typically clever, beautifully constructed and laugh-out-loud funny. Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, meanwhile, could rival Fforde for freewheeling invention and imagination in its mix of Victorian novel parody and classic time travel pastiche.

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Dizzyingly clever and joyously funny, the first of the Thursday Next adventures channels Douglas Adams and Monty Python into a surrealist stew centring on the sudden disappearance of Jane Eyre.
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One of the Discworld's true gems, Night Watch finds Commander Sam Vimes run up against his younger self in a fast-paced and brilliantly funny tale of rebellion, serial killers and time travel.
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A rollicking science fiction yarn bursting with irresistible ideas, Willis' enchanting novel throws the bombing of Coventry Cathedral, woozy time travellers and a pitch-perfect parody of Three Men in a Boat into a heady comedic brew.
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We'll conclude with a trio of choice time travel tales for younger readers, and it's hard to top the evergreen genius of Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden and its central character's evocative jaunts back to a nineteenth-century version of the house he is recuperating in. Madeline L'Engle's seminal A Wrinkle in Time, however, runs it close; a plucky trio of children hurtling forwards in time rather than back in order to save their lost father. Ross Welford brings us (almost) bang up to date with his luminous, moving and very funny twenty-first century spin on the time travel yarn.

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Merging aspects of time travel and supernatural fiction with a moving and involving domestic story, Philippa Pearce’s finest work is one of the greatest of all post-war children’s books.
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The classic children’s novel that kickstarted science fiction for younger readers, A Wrinkle in Time sees a trio of young explorers travel through space and time to find their missing father.
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Brilliantly funny and genuinely affecting, Welford's delightful time travel tale sends young Al back into the past to try and save his father's life - all whilst accompanied by his pet hamster Alan Shearer.
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