One of the decidedly fraught areas of fiction is genre. Very rarely is a book so limited in its story or its characters that it can neatly fit into the confines of any one category, and yet, that’s one of the first things prospective readers want to identify. So, we slap labels onto books, awarding designation to whichever trait of the novel screams the loudest, and allow back cover descriptions and reviews to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. (Capturing the entirety of a book is a lot to ask of any one word, even if hyphenated.) Still, some books put up more of a fight than others, refusing to adhere to enough conventions that booksellers and librarians might as well pull a genre out of a hat to save time shelving.

To make matters simpler while venturing into the realm of genre-defying fiction, we’ve gathered a selection of five titles that all share one key element: time. Though not all strictly time travel stories (it’d be too much to ask these rule-breakers to follow directions without some wiggle room), these novels manipulate the very nature of time, producing efficient killers and spies, terrifying hosts and societies, and new curiosities to discover. You could spend all day arguing about the genre to which these books “rightfully” belong, but I’ll argue that your time, no matter how it shifts and folds, would be better spent reading them in all their enigmatic glory.

 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes | HarperCollins

In this masterful twist on the serial killer novel, a young woman who refuses to die hunts a killer who should not exist. When Harper Curtis finds himself inside a house where doorways open to other times, he bids Depression-era Chicago farewell as he steps into his quest to kill “the shining girls,” those young lives burning bright with potential. If there was ever a perfect killer, it’s Harper, who’s able to strike his targets at their most vulnerable and vanish into the folds of time without a trace. Kirby Mazrachi is one of the shining girls, the last of her kind in fact, except she has no intention of going gently into that good night. Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, she takes up a position at the Chicago Sun-Times, enlisting the help of reporter Dan Velasquez, but as the truth unravels, the more impossible it seems.

Soon to be an Apple TV+ series starring Elizabeth Moss, all your favorite writers are raving about it: “Clever story, smart prose,” remarks horror master Stephen King. NYT bestselling author Gillian Flynn declares, “I’m all over it.” Tana French calls it “utterly original, beautifully written, and I must say, it creeped the holy bejasus out of me. This is something special.” Matt Haig asserts it’s “a new kind of thriller. A dark, relentless, time-twisting, page-turning murder story. It shines.”

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 Masters of the Broken Watches by Razi Imam | Independently Published

Like a mind-bending optical illusion that makes you question the very nature of reality, the speculative science of this next entry will have you questioning the nature of time itself. In this globe-trotting tale that’s part Indiana Jones and part James Rollins adventure, marine biologist Dr. Sebastian Miles risks his life to find luminescent snails that hold the key to one of biology’s biggest puzzles, but his superiors steal credit for his ground-breaking discovery. His work, however, lands him a spot on the unusual research team of Dr. Cebrían Alvarez, which combines world-class intellect with SEAL-like military savvy.

Meanwhile, a Vietnamese fisherman named Pham Kai sets out on a dangerous journey to capture a rare and expensive fish in order to help his dying wife. He finds something stranger in its place: a fish with oddly changing light patterns and eerie psychological effects, which swims from the hands of the Chinese and Vietnamese before making a splash in Sebastian’s lab. Studying the specimen leads to alterations and shifts in time, and soon the governments of two powerful nations are on a mission to ensure this new advantage is theirs before the research team can share its findings with the world. Masters of the Broken Watches “perfectly intertwines proven science with imagination,” says one reviewer. “So vividly written that it feels like you are pausing a movie when putting the book down.” (Our review.)

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 This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone | Saga

Braiding romance and espionage into a fantastic and lyrical sci-fi story, El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novella sees a war between technological and organic factions play out across the vast, complex network of space and time. Red and Blue have nothing in common. They’re on opposing sides of a war that aims to secure the best possible future for each of their own factions by altering the endless strands of history. They may be the best agents in their respective commands’ arsenals, but they’re also entirely alone. So, when Red finds a note from Blue, the rival agents begin an odd correspondence that slowly shifts from antagonistic victory brags to professional appreciation and then to something one might call affection. Perhaps, even romance? 

It’s a dangerous game they’re playing. If caught, they’d lose their lives, but they’re both too intoxicated by it all to stop now. All’s fair in love and war. And the whole point of war is to win, right? “Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay,” says Publishers Weekly. “This short novel warrants multiple readings to fully unlock its complexities.”

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 Slade House by David Mitchell | Random House

Here, readers find themselves in the presence of a mysterious door, well, maybe, if they know precisely where — and when — to look. Once every nine years, a black iron door appears in London, tucked inside a dark, narrow alley just a stone’s throw from the shabby Fox and Hounds Pub. So small you’ll have to stoop to go through it, the door leads to the peculiar Slade House, home to the well-preserved 120-year-old twins Norah and Jonah, and those welcomed into this misleading paradise discover too late that there is no exit.

“Like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining,” writes San Francisco Chronicle, “[Slade House] is a thin sliver of hell designed to entrap the unwary,” like a nerdy 13-year-old and his mother, a recently divorced detective inspector, a group of student paranormal investigators or the many others who fall prey to the house’s splendorous façade. Spanning from 1979 to 2015 as it leaps genres, The Washington Post calls this tale “a fiendish delight,” The Guardian “manically ingenious,” as the novel unfolds through the stories of five separate house guests. So, go ahead, enter … if you dare.

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 The Devil Pulls the Strings by J.W. Zarek | Independently Published

After a jousting accident at Missouri’s Ren Faire nearly kills his best friend, musician Boone Daniels agrees to take his friend’s place and perform with his band at a music festival in Central Park. As if Boone didn’t have enough problems suffering from panic attacks and haunted by a wendigo, upon his arrival in NYC, his contact, Professor Stone, is murdered right in front of him. Boone narrowly escapes but manages to save the professor’s assistant, a violinist named Sapphire, from the culprits. They soon discover that the death of the professor has ties to warring metaphysical societies in the city: one trying to summon the devil and end the world, the other working to stop them.

The fate of existence as they know it hinges on the concert in Central Park. Boone must work with Sapphire to locate a missing Paganini composition she’s meant to play, but the task proves far more complicated than it seems. This epic fantasy adventure travels across the globe and through time, blending history and folklore with entirely original elements. “The story is unique, ingenious, thrilling, distinctive, and just plain fun to read,” says one reviewer. With an endless cast of baddies and music ringing at its core, Zarek’s tale crescendos into something extremely entertaining. (Our review.)

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