As a big alternate history fan, I get asked often to recommend a good alternate history books, but that is like asking me what my favorite film is. There are just so many to choose from. However I will do my best to come up with a good list:
The best place to start is with Harry Turtledove. You just can’t go wrong with the “master of alternate history”. If there is a point of divergence you want to see, he has probably written about it. Not to sound like a hipster, but I would recommend his earlier novels over his recent works. I suggest you start by reading In the Balance the first entry in the four-book WorldWar series (and the first work of alternate history I ever read), where an alien race invades the Earth at the height of World War II. The series is followed by the Colonization series set in the 60s and the epilogue novel Homeward Bound, but I will only recommend those books to readers who first read and enjoyed WorldWar first.
Want something a little more plausible? Then you should try How Few Remain the first of the Timeline-191 (or Southern Victory series), the epic eleven volume series where Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders 191 were not discovered by Union soldiers, resulting in a Confederate victory at the Battle of Antietam and a victory in the American Civil War.
If you are not willing to make the commitment to a multi-book series, you should try some of Turtledove’s stand-alones. There is Ruled Britannia, where the Spanish Armada was victorious and Britain is once again Catholic, but is under Spanish occupation. Only the bard himself can win England’s freedom in a story that mirrors Czechoslovakia’s liberation from communism. Then there is The Two Georges, which he co-wrote with actor Richard Dreyfuss, where the American Revolution never happened thanks to cooler heads coming to a negotiated settlement that kept the colonies in the empire.
My personal favorite has to be In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which is set in the near future in a timeline where the Axis won World War II. The story focuses on a German bureaucrat, his family and the secret they keep. What really makes this story worthwhile, however, is how Turtledove captures the “banality of evil” that was (and could have been) Nazi Germany. These were not monsters or comic book super-villains scheming to destroy the world. There were regular people caught up in something horrible.
While Turtledove is good, if you want to try someone who really knows how to world build and be a little controversial, then the works of S. M. Stirling are for you. Stirling is probably best known for Domination of Draka series, a four book series set in a world where the Loyalists of the American Revolution settled in South Africa instead of Canada. There they build an empire based on putting every human who is not a Draka into the bonds of slavery. Plausible? The space-filling empires, spaceships and other alternate history clichés, does not make this the most plausible work on this list. Nevertheless, the series makes the cut by being absolutely horrifying. Many readers will find themselves cheering for the Nazis, because even the worse they planned for humanity is nowhere near as bad as what the Draka have in store for all of us.
Then there is there is the Nantucket trilogy where island of Nantucket and a Coast Guard ship are sent back in time to the Bronze Age. While some characters just want to survive in the past, others want to use their advanced knowledge to build an empire. The first novel in the trilogy, Island in the Sea of Time, is one of the more influential books in the genre. The acronym of the title, ISOT, is used by fans to describe any instance of time travel, whether by an individual or an entire nation. There is a parallel series called the Emberverse set on the Earth that Nantucket left behind. It is an excellent post-apocalyptic fantasy epic that I highly recommend, but alternate history content is minimal. If you enjoy a good alien space bat story and always wondered what would happen when all the lights went out, then you will enjoy the Emberverse. I would just like to point out that NBC’s Revolution has nothing to do with this story.
Like Turtledove, Stirling has his own stand-alone novels that I want to recommend. The first is Conquistador and though it is a slow start, it paints an amazing picture about what someone and his buddies would do if they had access to their own alternate Earth. While Conquistador is good, The Peshawar Lancers is superb tale and reminds you why Stirling is such a great world builder. The point of divergence is in 1878 when a heavy meteor shower impacts the northern hemisphere from the Ural Mountains to the Rockies. There is a huge die-off, but thanks to a quick-thinking Prime Minister Disraeli, much of the British upper class and military are relocated to India, South Africa and Australia. More than a century later, the Angrezi Raj is the world’s most powerful empire, but the demon-worshipping, cannibalistic Russians are scheming to break apart their empire. It is an engaging story that harkens back to the old adventure stories of Mundy and Kipling.
So I covered the big two, but I do not want to mislead you. There are many other authors who write in the genre. For series, read 1632 by Eric Flint where the fictional town of Grantville, West Virginia is sent back in time and space to Germany in the Thirty Years War. Flint was kind enough to open up the universe to other writers giving us almost a dozen full-length novels and a lot of short stories, all focusing on what time-misplaced Americans would do in the past. Another multi-book series you should check out is The Hammer and the Cross trilogy by Harry Harrison and John Holm. It is an intriguing story of how an English slave becomes a king and unites Medieval Britain with the lands of the Vikings. There is also The Children’s War and its sequel A Change of Regime by J. N. Stroyar set in a universe where Hitler never ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany rules all of Europe. A little implausible, but it has an excellent message about human dignity and how the various resistance movements of World War II could have survived a German victory in Europe.
Some stand-alone novels I recommend include Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp. This is one of the most influential novels in the genre and several AH authors name it as the inspiration for their own works. In this story a modern man is mysteriously transported to 527 AD and decides to help forestall the Dark Ages by sharing knowledge from his own era. Then there is the The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon set in a world where the United States allowed Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany to settle in Alaska and it probably has some of the best dialogue found in the genre. Nuclear war enthusiasts should read Resurrection Day by Brendan Dubois. In that timeline the Cuban Missile Crisis goes hot leaving a world where the former Soviet Union glows and the United States is becoming increasingly fascist.
I also need to give credit to Alison Morton for recommending these following novels, each of them having more in common with mainstream literary fiction then science fiction. Through them the authors were able to examine social, cultural and political events in an alternate history setting. First we have Fatherland by Robert Harris. This classic alternate history features a murder mystery where our hero stumbles onto a horrible secret deep inside the Third Reich. Then there is Pavane by Keith Roberts which features several personal short stories set in a world where post-Armada, Catholic England. Will the Church reign supreme or is rebellion in the air? Finally we must not forget The Alteration by Kingsley Amis where we find another Catholic England and young boy about to lose something very important. In these books we do not find troop movements or global politics, but normal people living their lives and making tough decisions against the backdrop of alternate history.
Up until now I have discussed books that have been character based narratives. The great thing about alternate history, however, is that books can be written as textbooks and still be entertaining. These books tend to focus more on crafting a well-researched, plausible scenario over telling a good story. One of the most famous examples of these fictional textbooks is For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel, where the Americans lose the Battle of Saratoga and the American Revolution. The British established the Confederation of North America over their North American colonies, while unrepentant rebels flee to Jefferson (Texas) where they later seize control of Mexico and form the bilingual United States of Mexico. It even comes complete with fictional footnotes to in-universe historians and books. A more recent example is When Angels Wept by Eric Swedin. Another Cuban Missile Crisis divergence, the story is written by an alternate version of the author who survived the global nuclear war. It discusses the events up to the crisis and how a change in the weather forced world leaders to make drastically different decisions that resulted in the death of millions.
I could go on and on, but I think I have given you a good list to start with. If you want more examples of alternate history I recommend three sites. First, Uchronia: The Alternate History List, an online database of over 3000 alternate history titles. It is managed by the same guys who run the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, so they have a pretty good idea what counts as good alternate history. Second, Wikipedia has a long list of alternate history books, series, anthologies, short stories and other works of alternate history. Finally, you should check out my AH blog, Alternate History Weekly Update, specifically the Review Archive where you can see what I and other contributors have to say about old and new works of alternate history.
Hopefully my recommendations help you find something you like in the alternate history genre, but remember not just to take my word for it. If you see something that might be interesting, try it out. Alternate history books are portals to alternate dimensions and you might be pleasantly surprised with what you discover on the other side.
About the author
Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a volunteer editor for Alt Hist magazine. His fiction can be found at Echelon Press, Jake’s Monthly and The Were-Traveler. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.