From Book Riot: 9 OF THE VERY BEST ALTERNATE HISTORY BOOKS
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:
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.