Historical fiction or speculative fiction?

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Time Travel: Probably not the first thing you think of when you think of historical fiction. Yet time travel in fiction interacts with historical contexts in ways that we might otherwise think of as historical fiction. As for the mechanics of doing this, I think it’s safe to say that time travel resides quite firmly in the world of speculative fiction. And I guess you could call that a done deal over there. But where would the fun be in that?

Actually, I think the categorization depends on the subject of the story. A novel primarily focused on time travel in action, like The future of another timeline, is science fiction. A book like Foreigner, on the other hand, where time travel is just a plot device, definitely reads more like historical fiction. And yeah, that’s the kind of weird stuff I think about as a nerd generalist and publisher of Book Riot.

Maybe this is all really obvious, but when you start talking about mixing genres, understanding how to categorize books gets a little trickier. It’s easy enough to say that a book is both historical fiction and speculative fiction – in fact, alternative history and historical fantasy are popular subgenres that combine the two – but can you even qualify of history a book which contains speculative elements?

My two cents: yes. Even a book containing a few brief speculative elements can be considered historical fiction. This is why time travel books where the story primarily focuses on characters living outside of time rather than the mechanics of time travel read so much like historical fiction. Because they basically are.

Are all those scan hairs? Yes, of course, and thank you for coming on the ride. But I thought about it a lot because I felt for a while that I shouldn’t include books with speculative elements in this newsletter at all. And that would have been a shame because time-traveling historical fiction offers a truly unique vantage point to explore historical settings since the protagonists, like us, have more modern sensibilities and knowledge. And these three books of historical fiction are all excellent examples of this, using time travel as a way to bring a modern (or relatively modern) character to another era.

Kinship by Octavia Butler

My favorite piece of time-traveling historical fiction and certainly the one that inspired the subject of this newsletter: Kinship. In the mid-1970s, Dana finds herself transported back in time to a plantation, where she rescues a drowning white boy. Reliving her ancestors’ experiences on the plantation is painful and horrifying, but the truth of why she is brought back there and called upon to save the same boy over and over again may prove it even more.

book cover of A Murder in Time

A murder in time by Julie McElwain

We already discuss the intersection of speculative elements in historical fiction, but this book brings another: mystery. Historical mystery is actually a pretty popular subgenre on its own. A rogue FBI agent is mistaken for a housekeeper when she suddenly finds herself in 1815 England. She was on the hunt for a murderer in the present day, but when a young girl appears dead in the past, Kendra must only use the tools at hand along with her years of experience, wits and cunning. to unmask a madman.

What the Wind Knows book cover

what the wind knows by Amy Harmon

Heartbroken by the death of her grandfather, Anne Gallagher travels to her childhood home in Ireland to scatter his ashes. But instead of finding closure there, she is pulled back in time, transported to 1921, when her grandfather was just a boy. It is a dangerous time, with growing tensions as Ireland struggles for independence. Anne knows she should seek a way back to her time, but as she is drawn into the conflict, she struggles to decide whether to follow her head or her heart.


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