Five Top Alternate History Books

After my last post on Historical Fantasy was enjoyed by so many, I thought I’d walk across the line and look at Alternate History, especially seeing as I made the distinction between it and historical fantasy.

And just a word on the Alternate/Alternative debate. Frankly, I think ‘Alternate’ doesn’t make as much sense in this context as ‘Alternative’, and it may be actively wrong, but it seems to the be winner out there in internet land and, as we know, the internet is the arbiter in all things.

Quick definition – a story where one important premise is a change in an historical event that causes today to be different. The Jonbar Hinge (go on, look it up, I know you’re dying to) kicks off a different (alternative!) timeline providing authors with great story possibilities.

This sort of story is almost the classic ‘What if?’ jumping off point, from the obvious ‘What if the Nazis won WWII?’ to other, more obscure historical turning points.

In the list below, I’ve deliberately avoided any Nazis winning WWII stories. You can find them yourselves – there are plenty.

Farthing – Jo Walton


History diverges in the 1930s when the UK makes peace with Hitler before WW2. It’s a delicate, moving portrayal of a country that has compromised its soul. Anti-Semitism and fascism are rampant and the knowledge that nothing is being done to stop the Nazi atrocities is eating at the heart of the green and pleasant land. The first book of the Loose Change trilogy.



A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah – Harry Harrison

tunnelOne of my favourite books. History goes sideways when the Moors win the battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and the Iberian peninsula remains Islamic, changing the entire complexion of Europe. No Spanish expeditions to the New World, for one. The British discover America and gain such a hold that the nascent independence campaign is stifled and George Washington shot as a traitor.

The story takes up in the modified present day with the descendant of the traitor is the engineer in charge of the vast project to build a train tunnel across the Atlantic. Complications ensue in this proto-Steampunk gem, the book that the notoriously crusty Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) read and ‘cried like a baby at the wedding between the beautiful, good Iris and brave Captain Washington’.


Pavane – Keith Roberts

pavaneI first read this book a long time ago, and its elegant prose and subtle exploration of how changes could affect the course of the world has be coming back to it again and again. Roberts imagines a world where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the English Renaissance never happened. Catholicism blanketed England, suppressing advances in science and philosophy, resulting in a much-stunted, much oppressed Britain. Elegiac, beautiful and sad.



Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

wolvesThis was a favourite of mine when younger particularly as it introduced the whole dizzy Wolves series which springs out of one vital historical event going sideways – the Stuarts win the Jacobite wars in the eighteenth century. The stories are set in a nineteenth century that results from this they are a fine example of this sub-genre.




The Gate of Worlds – Robert Silverberg

gate of worldsOne of the master SF writers has turned his hand to AH with The Gate of Worlds, where the one of the present super powers is the Aztec Empire, because in the fourteenth century, the Black Death ravaged even more of Europe than it did in our timeline. A thoughtful, provocative adventure, which explore the notion of colonialism from a different point of view.



Satisfied or tantalised? Here’s three more, in brief, where I just sketch out the turning point. I’ll leave you to imagine the world that results.

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis. Instead of railing against Rome and starting the Reformation, Martin Luther actually becomes pope.

The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen. Anne Boleyn delivers a healthy son to Henry VIII!

Rominitas by Sophia McDougall. The Roman Empire never fell and endures today.