There a certain tropes that I love so much that I actually hate almost every book with that trope because they’re not done right. Usually when this comes up in conversation—and it does, often, because I host a bunch of writing shows—I’m talking about Secret Baby. That’s when the couple goes their separate ways without the man knowing the woman is pregnant, whether it’s deliberately withheld or she doesn’t reach out to him when she ultimately finds out, and are then reunited.
I define this because I actually thought that term meant something completely different when I first came across it. Anyway.
I don’t usually mention the other top item on the list of tropes I love so much I hate every book that uses it, which is Time Travel. My relationship with this trope is complicated. As a child, time travel was my fucking jam. I can remember being obsessed with this book The Bunjee Venture, which is so obscure that Amazon doesn’t even have a description for it. I can buy a vintage paperback for $23. Hard pass. But, like, any sort of fantasy travel? We’re talking anything from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, loved it. And then I get A Wrinkle In Time actually explaining the science behind it? Awww, shit. This is everything.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Loved it. And the sequel. Haven’t seen the third one yet.
So, I don’t know if when I discovered time travel romance, my bar was simply set too high, or what. It didn’t help that my first foray into the genre was Karen Marie Moning’s Beyond The Highland Mist, which is amazing. That whole series is incredible. It may also not have helped that my second foray was Outlander, which actually I hated but not because of the time travel aspect of it. The time travel was actually done really well.
Here’s the thing with me and time travel. I need two elements to happen.
The first element is the trickier one: realism. I don’t mean a schematic for a time machine or compensation for the fact that the universe moves. I don’t need the hard science. I need some explanation for why this character can physically survive in the past. Because here’s the thing: our bodies can only handle what they already know. That’s both our digestive systems and our immune systems. You may not realize this, but you know this already. You’ve undoubtedly experienced this before. If you eat an unfamiliar ethnic food, your body reacts badly. If you’re an omnivore and eat tofu, your body reacts badly. If you’re a vegetarian and eat meat, your body reacts badly. If you’ve ever worked with kids, you were probably physically sick for the first year before your body adjusted to the constant exposure to every flipping virus and bacteria those little unbathed monsters carry.
My father was literally, literally hospitalized because he brushed his teeth with Mexican tap water.
And the thing is those kids are fine with their diseases. Mexicans are fine with their water. I’m fine with tofu. These are what our bodies know. But do you have any concept how different everything was 300 years ago? 500 years ago? Even farther back? Do you understand that the quality of bread was based on the size and quantity of rocks in it? I’m not making that up. And if you want to claim that everything was healthier then because they didn’t have the pollutants and pesticides, ask someone who lives on a diet of canned soup and TV dinners what happens when they eat a healthy, organic meal. Trust me, I’ve taken in food desert dieters, and it’s months before they adjust to home-cooked meal.
As for diseases, you know enough about the immune system to get the issue. Especially now in the time of COVID. Everything they had then was different. Everything mutates. Our cold virus has jack shit to do with their cold virus. And back to the food, you know how at least annually some produce or meat gets pulled because of salmonella or whatever? Yeah, that didn’t happen back then.
You’ve heard about how Europeans gave Native Americans a whole bunch of nasty diseases that put a major strain on their population, right? Their bodies had no idea what these illnesses were, and they caused massive mortality rates from it.
Fun fact: the “smallpox blanket” incident didn’t go down the way they usually say it did. Smallpox was already in the native population at the time. In fact, the strain that was on the blankets came from the natives. But there is very strong evidence that Native Americans gave syphilis to the rest of the world. Woo!
Okay, so even if you survive the food and the diseases, do you have any actual concept of how to exist in whenever culture you land in? I’m talking with basic toilet functions, to start with. I’m not going to go too deep into that, and I know you’re thinking about chamber pots right now, but are you sure you know the exact protocol behind the chamber pot? And are you aware of garderobes? A lot of people are not. My spellcheck isn’t.
Do you know how to dress yourself? Do you know how to survive in the wilderness with absolutely no supplies? Do you know how to convince someone that you’re an important distant cousin who should be treated as a Lady, and if you fail in that, do you know how to live as a peasant? Do you know how to prevent yourself from being branded a witch and executed by whichever method is the mode du jour?
Do you speak French? Depending on when you are, that might be important. Also, a convincing French accent might help. You’ll probably sound like a crazy person.
Fun fact: A modern-day Brit is going to sound crazier than an American. Research has shown that the American accent has evolved at a slower rate than British, so a 21st century American is actually going to sound more like a 16th century Brit than a 21st century Brit is. That being said, I’m not which American accent is closest.
I could keep going with this, but I believe I made my point. (If not, think about your period and also if you take anything to regulate it, because that’s not happening.) And the two series I mentioned before both satisfy this need for realism. In Highlander, there’s a heavy dose of magic at play. It’s been ages since I read it last, but I’m pretty sure he is immortal and there are fae closely involved. I know all time travel romance has magic involved, but there’s a big difference between magical being controlling the strings to make the world they want and…a magic rock. Also, I remember her committing a LOT of faux pas, and that’s at least acknowledging the issues of time travel. Honestly, I wish I’d reread it before writing this post, but that’s okay.
As for Outlander, the difference is only 200 years, she’s from the early 20th century, and she’s a triage nurse in the military. Her husband is a historian. She has everything at her disposal to survive and thrive in the 18th century. She even speaks French and has a smallpox vaccine, both of which are critical for her.
Do you have a smallpox vaccine? Most Americans don’t. I don’t know how it is in other countries.
Okay, that was the first element. The second element is it has to be a good story. Duh. But also not a repetitive one or one where the time traveler is just stupid, which becomes really problematic in time travel romance.
I hated Outlander because most of Claire’s problems are her own doing. I get fucking up and breaking social customs because the role of women in 18th century Scotland sucked every bit as much as most other times and places in the world, but eventually you need to learn to deal with it. Find your place within it. Learn to hold your tongue in public. It’s not like this is an impossible or demeaning skill. Work retail, and you learn it incredibly fast or you lose your job.
This tends to be where most time travel just doesn’t work for me. The time traveler is so anachronistic that no matter how smart they are, they’re idiots. It either creates a whole lot of issues that aren’t necessary to further the plot, or it creates not nearly enough issues and somehow all these medieval dudes are just accepting how fucking weird she is and not drowning her or drawing and quartering her or burning her at the stake or whatever.
Do you see the soles of her shoes how is that not fucking witchcraft to you
And if the first book passes those tests, there is a high HIGH high chance that the second book is almost identical to the first book. And the third, and the fourth. The exact same plotline, over and over again. I’m not here to name names (except Outlander, once you get a TV show I’m gonna call you out) but I’ve read five whole books of the exact same plotline from one author.
Just putting it out there, I also have a major issue with series where everyone is so closely related that there ends up being this whole-ass gang of 21st century people having, like, Tuesday Teatime together. There’s basically a Welcoming Committee and a Starter Kit for new arrivals. If you read the genre, you know what I’m talking about.
I’m now remembering I came here to recommend a book series. Called By The Highlander. Mariah Stone. So, right off the bat, she’s a search and rescue worker. She absolutely has the skills to survive in the wild. Also, it all starts out really badly for her. He immediately locks her up, thinking she’s from an enemy clan, before he even has a chance to learn that there’s something wrong with her.
Fae are involved. She magically speaks Gaelic. I accept this as evidence that she’s also been biologically adapted to the food and diseases of the time. I really don’t need a lot to get there, I just need some nod to this.
And the romance is fantastic. They have the chemistry, but they have trust issues. Both of them are a bit damaged, which is another jam of mine. You know they’re going to end up together at the end, but it’s really touch-and-go for a while.
The second book is just as good as the first. Also, he’s the time traveler in this one, and that is so goddamn refreshing. I’m not a self-inserter. I don’t need to see myself in the heroines. I want these stories to have every combination possible.
Book three was a little meh. I’m not going to lie. She’s a cook, she revamps the kitchen. And she teaches the other cooks how to keep things clean, which I always have a bit of an issue with. Not cleanliness, but modern practices. This wasn’t nearly as egregious as, like, inventing penicillin, Claire of Outlander, but it still rankles just a bit.
And that’s okay, because book four was right back on track, and finally with diversity! I know it’s hard to put diversity in these stories. I’m not calling anyone out. Depending on the time frame, a black character could totally mess things up (although seriously, LGBT+ has always existed and every fucking one of you needs to get better at it. And don’t call me out; you’ve met three lesbians in my novels, and you just don’t know it yet), but I’m still gonna be really excited when I see it. But more importantly, this book was fantastic. She is so goddamn badass. I loved this book.
Book five, Highlander’s Desire, comes out today. I liked the series so much that I hunted down the author on an ARC service to get an advance copy. And I do not regret it.
Funny side story: The first hour I spent reading the book, I hated it. I hated her, I hated him, I hated the premise. Turns out I was just having a really bad day, because I started over a couple weeks later and—
I loved this book. This might have been my favorite so far. That could also be because it’s the one I most recently read, but I loved it. We finally got a historian. Not only did she have all the knowledge she needed to talk the talk, but she literally knew who he was already. I loved that. The whole plotline revolves around her fear of royally screwing up history, and a super important element of history. Also, she is all about the learning while she’s there, and although she knows she’s supposed to be there to form a relationship with him, she rejects that (because of messing with time) and sets her sights on manipulating things just enough that it gives her an upper hand in her academic pursuits in the modern day.
I respect that. I am all about characters who refuse to let go of their career goals for a man.
And their romance is great. I don’t think I need to state that. I wouldn’t recommend the book if it wasn’t. But they’re great together. There’s a good tension, there’s a healthy distrust of her—I do want that in every time travel book, because the only way she survives is by lying so obviously she’s not trustworthy—and the forces holding them apart are strong enough that the only way they could ever get a Happily Ever After is if the fae deemed them destined to be together.
Which they did.
I finally have a second Time Travel Romance I can recommend, y’all.