The Best Alternate History


I can think of some alternate history novels I really enjoyed, but it’s not a particular interest of mine. In fact, some of the alternate histories that come to mind for me are not well known and there’s no chance they’ll appear on this list at Book Riot. (I haven’t clicked through yet, but I’m pretty confident.) I know, or I’m pretty sure, that a very large proportion of alternate histories deal with (a) The South wins the Civil War, or (b) The Nazis win World War II, and I’m not especially interested in either scenario. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I think both of those are boring, though of course a specific novel may handle either scenario so well that I love it. I mean, in theory. In the real world, that hasn’t ever happened.

Also, I specifically prefer alternate history that is also fantasy, so, I mean, Temeraire. Not that I believe in the essential element. You cannot sustain that population of dragons in Britain. There’s no way. But firmly suspending belief means that I loved the first book of this alternate history of the Napoleonic era with dragons.

On the other hand, if you start to say “alternate history, but with magic!” then you can get way beyond alternate history in a hurry. I mean, look at Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen series. I guess that’s sort of alternate history, in the sense that things might be different if heaven and hell were layered above and below ordinary reality in Singapore Three. But this is not really what I think of as alternate history.

I think I prefer a stricter definition, something that limits the fantasy elements so that the alternate history elements get a chance to shine. Anything beyond dragons = too much fantasy, though the dragons themselves might not push the boundary too hard. They are treated like natural creatures except that they are, you know, dragons, and also not ecologically plausible.

Let me pause to actually scan Book Riot’s list. Okay, there are zero WWII or South Wins the Civil War novels here, which is a surprise! Some of these sound pretty interesting.

I mean, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 sounds a bit like the Inspector Chen series.

In turn of the 20th century Cairo, the natural and supernatural mix. It’s up to agents from Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to deal with any issues that come up between the two. So when a tram car is reportedly haunted, throwing a wrench into the city’s daily commute, a senior agent and his newbie partner must perform an exorcism. But this is no run of the mill haunting, and the agents will have to pull out all the stops to get the trains running on time again.

See? Detectives in a really odd alternate-history world where magic mixes into a modern-ish setting. That’s definitely reminiscent of Liz Williams’ excellent series. This is the one that catches my eye the most from the Book Riot list. But how about alternate history that’s all about the history and doesn’t blur the lines with fantasy?

One of my fairly recent favorites in that category is Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale.

This is “Romans meet Cahokians … with hangliders and Greek fire.” This is the first book of a trilogy. It’s very well written, but, warning, terrible things happen. To moderate that warning, let me add that the ultimate ending is not terrible. After Smale manages to end the first book in a fairly good way, I trusted that the whole trilogy would also end well, and it does.

One I’d like to read, but haven’t gotten to, is Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.

This one begins with the idea that the Black Death eradicated Europeans and then moves on from that point of divergence to develop a world quite different from the real world. It sounds intriguing, though reviews are somewhat mixed.

Of course, for someone who really knows Alternate History, we should ask Craig N and/or Mike S for recommendations. I mean, here:

GURPS Alternate Earths and GURPS Alternate Earths 2 by Ken Hite, Mike Schiffer, and Craig Neumeier

Travel the Confederate States of America by dirigible. Battle the Aztec Jaguar Knights in their conquest of Europe. Join the American Resistance against Nazi occupation. March with the Roman legions on their campaigns in the New World. GURPS Alternate Earths provides fully fleshed-out backgrounds for six alternate histories … the six are Dixie, Roma Aeterna, Reich-5, Shikaku-Mon, Escalli, and Gernsback. That last would be the one you’d want to live in.

Also six more alternate histories in the second supplement: Serve the August Emperor as an Eye of Heaven – or plot the downfall of the world-girdling Ming. Take to the skies to defend democracy in Bourbon Europe. Raid the glittering pyramids of Mexico with your Vinlander kinsmen. Dodge British helicopter gunships as you fight for America 200 years after Washington’s execution. Raise your eyes to the stars of the Rightly Guided Stellar Caliphate.

I had forgotten the Rightly Guided Stellar Caliphate. That is a great name. It reminds me strongly of something … oh! The Benignity of the Compassionate Hand in Elizabeth Moon’s space opera series. I greatly enjoyed the first book set in this world, Hunting Party. That does not appear to be available on Kindle. Oh, yes it is, as part of an omnibus edition. I’ve never seen a better use of the word “benignity” in my life.

I see I’ve wandered away from the topic of alternate history. What’s another actual alternate history I’ve enjoyed? Well, there’s a book, actually a phenomenon, that is adjacent to alternate history: 1632, where a Pennsylvania mining town blips back to Europe in 1632, in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. The first book is a gung-ho adventure story where the good guys sweep all obstacles before them. After that, the series turns into the most fascinating shared-world phenomenon in SFF history. I expect it’s still going strong, but I must admit I have lost track. I will pause to mention that my actual favorite book by Eric Flint is Mother of Demons, which offers great aliens. Mollusk types rather than anything more typical.

Here’s an alternate history I’d like to read: The Oppenheimer Alternative.

While J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team struggle to develop the A-bomb, Edward Teller wants something even more devastating: a weapon based on nuclear fusion — the mechanism that powers the sun. But Teller’s research leads to a terrifying discovery: by the year 2030, the sun will eject its outermost layer, destroying the entire inner solar system — including Earth. After the war ends, Oppenheimer’s physicists combine forces with Albert Einstein, computing pioneer John von Neumann, and rocket designer Wernher von Braun — the greatest scientific geniuses from the last century racing against time to save our future. Meticulously researched and replete with real-life characters and events, The Oppenheimer Alternative is a breathtaking adventure through both real and alternate history.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? I have (sigh) a sample on my Kindle, languishing amongst all the vast number of other samples and books.

If you’ve got a favorite alternate history, or a suggestion for something adjacent to this subgenre, drop it in the comments. Craig and Mike S might have a top ten list instead of a particular favorite. Bring ’em on.

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19 thoughts on “The Best Alternate History”

  1. Book Riot mentioned Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, but implies that the meteorite was the moment that the timeline diverged, but it actually diverged a few years earlier when Dewey defeated Truman in 1948 (there’s a short story called “We Interrupt This Broadcast” in the same universe that makes it clear *why* the meteorite hit Earth…).

    Anyway, one of the more bizarre “simple” alternate-history premises I’ve read was Turtledove’s “Hail, Hail!” where he has the Marx Brothers from 1933 get transported to 1826 Texas during the Fredonian rebellion, and what changes from there.

    I really liked Alan Smale’s book too, especially having visited Cahokia many times as a kid in STL.

    Adam Christopher’s “Made to Kill” was a fun Hollywood noir where a sentient robot got invented in the ’30s or ’40s (he’s the detective).

    I’ve got a real soft sport for Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories (the Plantagenets keep their Anglo-French empire and also magic, and we have a Cold War situation between the Angevins and the Polish-Lithuanians.

    Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters is probably my single favorite standalone Alternate History, though, since it’s not just alternate-history, but alternate-science where the classic Greek (and Chinese) understanding of science and the cosmos is correct when they launch a spaceship…

  2. I ran into SM Stirling’s Emberverse series by accident: the first book I read, which was not the first in a series, was basically a fantasy quest in an alternate America with magic- but it turns out it was a doomsday kind of scenario, where everything modern dies and magic arises slowly, and people have to survive. I found it great for a while, then lost interest around book 6 or so.

  3. Laura Anne Gilman wrote a series about the Wild West (The Devil’s West) but with magic and alternate history. So did Charlaine Harris (Gunnie Rose). And Patricia Wrede (Frontier Magic). I enjoy them all, particularly Wrede’s.

  4. I too enjoyed Patricia Wrede’s Frontier magic series, Laura Ann Gilman’s The Devil’s West series, and Randall Garrett’s “Lord Darcy investigates” bundle of shorter stories.

    Two not yet mentioned that I also enjoyed are the Glamourist histories by Mary Robinette Kowal, starting with “Shades of Milk and Honey”, a sort of Jane Austen with added illusion-magic (and the social effects that adding those talents has), set in Europe in Napoleonic times; and the “Night calls” series of three books by Katherine Eliska Kimbriel, which is set in the pioneering time in America, like the Devil’s West.
    And then there’s the “Pyramids of London” series by our favorite author Andrea K.Höst, I’m surprised it didn’t get mentioned immediately!

    But all these books feel not so much like explorations of possible alternative histories to me (apart from possibly the Glamourist history series, which keeps a fairly narrow focus rather than exploring sweeping historical changes, but does feel like it sticks closer to history), as like fantasy stories where the setting is based on some specific era and location, transmuted by fantasy elements into its own world.

  5. I just reread the Night Call’s series- so like Patricia Wrede’s, and so good! I wish she would continue that series!

  6. Glad to see someone else mention Celestial Matters and Lord Darcy. I will add that the Darcy stories handle magic interestingly: if there were principles to discover behind folk magic beliefs, it might come out like that.

    A couple of older books that deserve mention are H Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, a strong early example of the displaced-modern type of story, and John Maddox Robert’s King of the Wood, an excellent Viking America adventure.

    S M Stirling’s dystopia Draka trilogy were quite significant when AH Fandom was becoming a thing in the 90s. I think the first two volumes of the trilogy hold up quite well even if the first one is an alternate WWII.

    I’m not a huge fan of Harry Turtledove’s epic AH series, but some of his singletons and shorter works are good. Ruled Britannia comes to mind.

    And somebody ought to mention the immense 1632 series, though it may be more interesting as a self-sustaining publishing phenomenon than as by far the biggest displaced-moderns story.

  7. Duh, you mentioned 1632 in the OP. I will add, we’ll have to see how it weathers the death of Eric Flint, but my money is on it keeping going a while longer.

  8. I loved Lord Darcy and Patricia Wrede’s Frontier series.

    Why am I thinking that 1632 involved the island of Nantucket?

    I liked “The Two Georges” by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove. I’m not sure if it’s in print anymore, but it takes place in a current day America, but where the two Georges of the American Revolution made up and America remains a colony. The story is a detective story of the famous painting of the Two Georges being stolen just before the current King was due to visit …

    I do enjoy a good alternate history, which is kind of what my own current book is–it’s our world but where it’s been a matriarchal society forever, instead a patriarchy. My protagonist is a journalist sent to interview the senator who might just be elected first male President of the United States.

  9. Re the island of Nantucket… you’re probably thinking of Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling which involves a similar timeswap with modern Nantucket and bronze age Nantucket island.

  10. In general I am not a fan of alt history if you have to know the actual history to appreciate it, but I do enjoy them sometimes. I liked The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and another one in the same universe, A Master of Djinn. And I am very fond of Lord Darcy.

    Besides the Devil’s West, Laura Anne Gilman has a new alt history with magic called the Huntsmen series. Uncanny Times is the first one, and Uncanny Vows will be out soon. It’s set in New England in the early 1900s, where members of Huntsman families search out and kill the Uncanny. The main characters are a brother and sister Aaron and Rosemary Harker and their supernatural hound, Botheration.

    Also, Nicole Glover has a series in post-Civil War Philadelphia featuring a couple who were Underground Railroad conductors and now use spellwork to solve mysteries. The Conductors is the first one.

  11. One author who does really interesting alt-history/fantasy is D.J. Butler. His “Witchy Eye” is a flintlock fantasy set just after the Revolutionary War era. It involves the Pennsylvania Dutch, Appalachia, and Cahokia. I have not finished the series yet – it’s on my ever-growing list, but the first and second books were good. He also wrote “The Cunning Man”, which is set in Depression-era Utah, and involves folk magic and demons. “The Cunning Man” is not for the faint of heart, however – the body count was astoundingly high and his demons are not friendly entities.

  12. Craig N’s mention of the “displaced modern” reminded me of three more, which I read a long time ago.
    Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court”, which I didn’t like.
    “Lest darkness fall” by L. Sprague de Camp, which I did find interesting, where a displaced midern tries to bring printing press technology, double bookkeeping and IIRC distilling and more to ancient Rome, to try to avoid the Roman empire falling to the dark ages within his lifetime. He made the realistic point that all such innovations tend to build on from earlier developments: before you can create a printing press, even if you know how it works, you need to be able to create the right kind of thick, sticky ink and smooth paper, in commercially viable amounts, to make utilising a printing press a viable enterprise and not run out of resources immediately.
    That reminded me of C.J.Cherryh’s “The sword of knowledge” trilogy, which is not a displaced modern story but is alternative ancient Mediterranean history, and a good story, with a similar premise of trying to safeguard the knowledge that these ancient civilisations had from the encroaching barbarian hordes, and save the seeds to expand again after the Mongol incursion without falling into ignorance and having to rebuild and reinvent nearly everything.

  13. I liked how Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister romance series became an alternate history of darwinian theory being developed, sort of incidentally. Mostly don’t read much alt history, though.

  14. Hanneke, yes “Lest Darkness Fall” is the ur- source for that type of story within SF. It holds up OK. Twain was earlier but doesn’t have the SF attitude or as much attention to world building (and of course Arthur is going to be less historical from the get go.)

    Stories of that type are still being written… I read a forgettable one that went back to colonial America a few years ago.

    Stirling invented the idea of sending back a whole community in his Island trilogy, and AH fandom called them ISOT scenarios, at least when I was part of it.

  15. John m Ford’s The Dragon Waiting is usually mentioned in these lists.

    I kind of get it. But the book didn’t work for me partly for the working out of the changes he does – didn’t believe them. Others love it.

    (haven’t forgotten the description samples. haven’t been able to sit down and work on it for a few days.)

  16. D.J. Butler’s Cunning Man series reminded me a lot of Manley Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer work (which I am delighted to see is getting two new collected editions coming out in the very near future). But that’s because of the American folklore base, not the alternate history angle.

  17. Let me see if I can hit everything. …

    Personally, the single work mentioned here that I’m most likely to look up is the Marx Brothers thing by Turtledove. He’s not my favorite author, but that sounds like such a fantastic, weird idea. Also The Cunning Man story; I like that idea too.

    I love Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. That is SO divergent from real history that I don’t think it’s as good an example as many others. Come to think of it, same with Pyramids of London. SO DIVERGENT. For alternate history, I think first of stories that are closer to history and have fewer immortal vampire Egyptian pharaohs, or whatever.

    I liked the Devil’s West series … well, not crazy about the third book. I though the first was pretty amazing. I ought to try this other series of Gilman’s. A dog named Botheration sounds like enough of a hook to get me interested.

    Alison, who wrote the Night Calls series?

    SarahZ, that was a really startling divergence in what I thought would be a straight historical romance series. I liked that a lot too, of course!

    I love Celestial Matters in conception, but I haven’t ever re-read it. On the other hand, I have to say the same about Smale’s trilogy, though in that case it’s because it’s so intense and so many terrible things happen.

    Elaine, yes, I read The Dragon Waiting but didn’t really like it. I focused on the characters much more than the setting and didn’t like them enough to get engaged in the story, I suppose. It’s been a while, so I don’t really remember.

  18. Night Calls is by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel— Hanneke pointed it out, too. I think you’d like it, she draws you into her world with a nice amount of detail, but it’s definitely unfinished. I may go back and read SM Stirling again, I’m pretty sure I have a bunch of his books in paperback. After No Foreign Sky!!

  19. Night Calls sounded familiar, so I checked. I’ve read it and recommend stopping after the second. The third read like the author had taken a hard turn and lost the way. It also doesn’t wrap up.

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