Time travel is an element of storytelling that offers potentially limitless possibilities, allowing writers to explore politics, romance, warfare, discovery, and more in ways we might never expect.
Since 1895, with the publication of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (below), time travel stories in modern fiction have inspired and captivated readers around the world.
It isn’t only the genre of science fiction that utilises time travel, however. Many of the best time travel books are love stories, crime thrillers, and even fantasy novels.
Essential Time Travel Books
Because of the breadth of scope and possibility that time travel can offer, what you’ll find here is a spectrum of genres and styles from writers of all different walks of life.
Some of these time travel books are deeply allegorical and political, using time travel to make strong and noble points about modern society.
Others use time travel as a savvy storytelling technique to present readers with fantastic romance and thriller narratives.
There’s something for everyone here in this selection of the best time travel books ever written.
This Is How You Lose the Time Way by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
This is How You Lose the Time War is a stunning piece of time travel science fiction, co-written by two celebrated sci-fi authors.
Here’s one of the most unique time travel romance books you’ll ever read. Our protagonists, known only as Red and Blue, are deadly agents who operate for rival factions which are fighting for control of multiple timelines.
While wandering the remains of a mecha battlefield, Red finds a letter left for her by Blue.
The letter taunts and teases Red, but also hints that Blue is becoming disenchanted by this ceaseless and seemingly endless, ultimately pointless war between their factions.
From this point on, we shift narratives between both characters’ perspectives, and those perspectives are separated by letters they leave for each other to find.
As they move through various strands of time that shift back and forth through possible pasts and futures, each finds a letter left by the other, and these letters steadily take on a different, more poetic and romantic tone.
From flirtatious taunts to passionate declarations of love, the letters steadily spell out the intense addiction that these two opposing women have developed for one another.
This is one of those time travel books with larger-than-life concepts that involve time manipulation and riding the threads of time, taking us from Plato’s Greece to mech wars on distant planets.
This is a wildly exciting time travel romance novel that shows us how, no matter the scale of the world, no matter the advancements in technology, love can still win in the end.
Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot
In a Tokyo café that has stood since the Edo period sits is a chair at the furthest point from the door. Local legend says this chair can transport you back through time, provided you follow a specific set of rules.
The legend is true, as Fumiko soon discovers when her boyfriend abruptly leaves her for a job in the US and she’s willing to do anything to go back in time and stop him.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold opens with Fumiko meeting with her boyfriend for what he calls a ‘serious conversation’. She hopes for a proposal, but he hits her with a break-up instead.
Goro moves to the US and a week goes by for the pining, mourning Fumiko, who continues to visit the café.
When Fumiko recalls the local urban myth surrounding the time-travelling chair, she asks the café’s staff if there’s any truth to it.
There is, but if the rules aren’t adhered to, there are dire consequences.
First, you cannot leave the chair. Second, whatever you say or do will not alter the present.
Finally, there is a time limit: the journey through time begins when the coffee is poured, and you must finish it before the coffee gets cold.
If you don’t, you take the place of the woman who is almost always sat in that chair; a woman who turns out to be a ghost. She leaves the chair to visit the toilet once a day, and that’s when you can sit and travel back.
Try to move her by force and she will curse you, as Fumiko finds out. This woman was the last person who let the coffee go cold, and now remains there always as a ghost.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold isn’t only one of the most unique and compelling time travel books of recent years, but is also one of the most celebrated Japanese novels of our time.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Outlander is an enormous success story; a series of time travel books that have an ongoing history of more than thirty years. Add to this the huge popularity of the Outlander TV series.
The first novel in the series introduces us to protagonist Claire Randall, a British Army nurse who served during World War II.
Having been reunited with her husband after the end of the war, the two take a second honeymoon to Inverness, Scotland.
While gathering plants, Claire is drawn to, and touches, a standing stone (solitary monoliths known as a menhir, which date back to Bronze Age Scotland).
Upon touching the stone, Claire passes out and wakes up centuries into the past, in the year 1743.
This is a world she doesn’t know, one torn apart by politics, warfare, and bloodshed. There, she will be tempted by love as she falls for a man who is everything her 20th century husband is not.
Outlander has become one of the great and iconic time travel romance books of our time, and the series’ popularity only continues to grow.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This is where modern time travel stories began, with H.G. Wells’ sci-fi masterpiece, The Time Machine, which has been adapted to film twice.
As a side note, the original 1960 film starring Rod Taylor remains a fantastic piece of sci-fi cinema; a must-watch classic.
Wells’ original novel was published in 1895 and set the stage for all the best time travel books that would follow.
The premise is simple: an inventor builds himself a time machine, and that machine carries him forward in time.
But while most time travel books focus on a future that remains relatable, understandable, and potentially possible, The Time Machine goes far beyond any of that.
Our scientist arrives in the year 802701 CE, an eerie future in which human evolution split into two very different groups.
The first group are the naive, child-like Eloi, who live in blissful peace and harmony, with all their needs provided to them.
The other group live underground, and they are the cannibalistic Morlocks, who feed on the Eloi.
As a socialist, Wells was critical of many aspects of European society during his time, and his novels were allegorical of the things he disagreed with.
This can be seen in The War of the Worlds, an anti-colonialism story. And it can also be seen here, with The Time Machine being a critique of class disparity and social inequality.
The Time Machine remains one of the most valuable time travel books ever written, by the godfather of modern science fiction.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
But King has also penned a few excellent thrillers, and this is one of his very best. Beyond that, it’s also one of the coolest time travel books of this century.
In 11/22/63, an English teacher named Jake is shown a wormhole that leads to the late 1950s.
A friend convinces him to use his time in the past to attempt the noble task of stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Jake and the reader soon learn that the past may be changed for the better but the future may not react so positively.
Another great aspect to this time travel book is the relationship between Jake and his love interest, Sadie.
Both bring incredible warmth to a novel which, rather than just being a tense thriller, becomes one of the most surprising time travel romance books to boot.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a puzzle box of a mystery novel that employs time travel and time loop rules to deliver one of the smartest, most captivating mystery plots you’ll ever read.
We begin halfway through a word that has just left the mouth of our nameless, amnesia-stricken protagonist. It is as though he has just woken up inside his own body.
He is in a forest, shouting a name he doesn’t know, and he is alone. That’s all we know, and it’s all he knows, too.
He walks, and eventually arrives at a manor house. The people there tell him he is their friend, that he is a doctor, and that he’s there for a party, just like they are.
The next morning, he wakes up as a different person in the house, and it is then that he learns that he will continue to jump from body to body for eight days, tasked with solving and preventing the death of the titular Evelyn Hardcastle.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a dizzying mystery novel, masterfully crafted and thrilling at every turn. Of all the time travel books you’ll ever read, none handle the mechanics of time like this one does.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
A generation-defining science fiction novel and one of the best pieces of American fiction ever written, Kindred is a true masterpiece amongst time travel books, and science fiction in general.
When the novel begins, Dana and Kevin are unpacking after moving to a new house in California, when she finds herself teleported back 150 years to a plantation in 1815 Maryland and the sight of a drowning red-headed boy.
Dana saves the boy from drowning and immediately finds herself facing down the barrel of a white man’s gun, before being yanked back through time to her present in the 1970s.
As it transpires, the drowning boy is Rufus, an ancestor of Dana’s who will father a child with one of his family’s slaves, and Dana is now caught in a loop: any time Rufus’ life is threatened, she is pulled in time back to save him.
Similarly, if she is put in harm’s way while in the past, she is sent back to 1976. On her third journey back to 1815, her husband is dragged back with her by accident, raising the stakes even higher.
Being a Black woman married to a white man, Dana is assumed a slave, and Kevin her owner. Kindred is a sci-fi time travel novel about cruelty and compassion, about the importance of education and empathy.
A true masterpiece amongst time travel books by one of the USA’s most important literary voices, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of the most important American novels you’ll ever read; a masterpiece of time travel sci-fi.
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett was a genius author, of that there is no debate. His Discworld series of fantasy books provided an enormous, expansive, satirical world of possibilities and endless narrative potential.
As we journey across the Discworld, we follow a handful of different protagonists, including Death himself. One of the most beloved protagonists is Sam Vimes, captain of the Ankh Morpork city watch.
In Night Watch, while Sam Vimes’ wife is in labour and he is in heroic pursuit of a known criminal, the city watch captain is hit by lightning and sent backwards in time.
Vimes is quickly arrested by a younger, less experienced version of himself, and in the cell beside his is the very criminal he was chasing across the rooftops in his own present day.
Night Watch is another fantastic Discworld novel, presenting an entirely new side to a fan-favourite protagonist, and is one of the most creative and hilarious time travel books you’ll ever read.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel
With Sea of Tranquility, beloved contemporary author Emily St. John Mandel has written a phenomenal piece of time travel science fiction which surpasses even Station Eleven, her most successful novel.
Cleverly tied to her literary thriller The Glass Hotel with recurring events and characters from that novel, this is a book that unfurls gradually and strangely, creating a kind of symmetry with itself by the final page.
We begin in 1912, with an English nobleman exiled to the rural wilds of western Canada by his family. Then we move to the modern day, with characters from The Glass Hotel revealing what almost seems like a glitch in the world.
Next is the life of an author who grew up on a moon colony and is now doing a global book tour in 2203, just as a pandemic is about to sweep the planet.
Finally, at the book’s halfway point, we meet our true protagonist: a man named Gaspery, whose sister works for a time travel agency.
From here, we begin to move backwards through the time periods and lives we’ve already seen, as the truth gradually gets revealed and explored.
All of these lives become stitched together as this time travel novel progresses, in ways that will blow your mind over and over again. The plotting of this novel is beaten only by its incredibly revelations.
Sea of Tranquility is a true masterpiece of plotting and tone, moving with speed and grace. One of the best time travel books you’ll ever read.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
No other author has ever written, or even thought, like Kurt Vonnegut did. He was a masterful satirist who used science fiction to explore the deep, dark political themes of the 20th century.
Written during the Vietnam War, and displaying aggressively blatant anti-war themes and messaging, Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut’s most celebrated novel, and for very good reasons.
Based in part on Vonnegut’s own life as a serviceman during World War II, Slaughterhouse-Five follows the life of a man named Billy Pilgrim.
Pilgrim was an American PoW who experienced and survived the firebombing of Dresden, and who later was abducted by aliens and taken to a planet called Tralfamadore.
We spend some of the novel living through Billy’s experiences through World War II, then his life back home post-war, and finally his abduction by aliens and the time-twisting that follows.
It’s a strange time travel sci-fi novel that throws out surreal and dreamlike concepts about seeing in four dimensions, travelling through memories, and being held in an alien zoo.
Considered a work of postmodernism, Slaughterhouse-Five is an expressly anti-war book that explores this perspective through surreal science fiction and satire.
Blending war fiction, satire, science fiction, and time travel, Slaughterhouse Five does a lot of different things, and it does them all splendidly.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons excels at writing within and beyond the bounds of various different genres, from thrillers to historical fiction, to this: a time travel sci-fi novel based on The Canterbury Tales.
Set in a far-future in which a spacefaring human empire exists known as the Hegemony of Man, Hyperion follows a group of pilgrims who have arrived on the planet of Hyperion.
Hyperion is home to strange Time Tombs which move backwards in time, and are guarded by a strange native creature called the Shrike.
Modelled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is a time travel book that presents us with each pilgrim’s backstory, and what led them to the titular planet of Hyperion.
A wonderful exercise in world-building and sci-fi storytelling, Hyperion is a a trippy and strange novel, and one of the coolest, most experimental time travel books you’ll ever read.
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffinger
This 2003 novel has become an absolute classic amongst time travel romance books, and time travel books in general, propelled into the public consciousness by its film and TV adaptations.
Our dual protagonists are husband-and-wife pair Henry and Clare. Henry suffers from a strange disorder which the novel calls “Chrono-Impairment”. This disorder causes Henry to become frequently unshackled from time.
From a very young age, Henry has been periodically shot backwards in time. Each episode is entirely unpredictable, as is where he will go and how long he will be trapped there for.
Clare and Henry’s meetings have happened out of order, with Henry first laying eyes on her at the library where he works when they are both in their twenties. This, however, was not the first time Clare met Henry.
After they meet in the present, Henry begins to travel back into Clare’s past. Eventually, he provides her a with list that will tell her when in her life he will appear. He also reveals to young Clare that they will eventually be married.
Inspired by the author’s own romantic disappointments, The Time Traveler’s Wife has become one of the best-known, best-selling time travel books of all time.
Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister
Our protagonist, Jen, is waiting for her teenage son Todd to come home. He’s late; it’s after midnight, and when he eventually appears outside, Jen watches her son kill someone with her own eyes.
The police arrive, Todd is in possession of the knife, has the victim’s blood on his clothes, and his own mother saw it happen. What doubt could there be that Todd did what he did, even if we don’t know why?
But this isn’t where it ends. In fact, from this moment, Jen goes to sleep and wakes up a day earlier.
Every single night she goes to sleep and wakes up a day earlier, rather than later, as time steadily reverses day by day and she is given a chance to follow this thread back to its beginning, and its revelation.
A dizzying thriller that plays with the tropes of time travel in fun new ways. Mixing time travel and thrillers is nothing new, but the way that McAllister does it is fresh and addictive.
The time travel gimmick is one that’s arguably best utilised by thrillers and mystery novels, and this is a glowing example. One of the most addictive time travel books of recent years.