I’m a bit of a history geek, I’ll admit that. I mean, I’m majoring in history because I love it
and because witnessing the failures of men is entertaining. One of the things that really gets me going, though, is thinking about all the what-ifs in history.
What if the driver of Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade didn’t take a wrong turn that day in Sarajevo? What if Zheng He reached the Americas before the Europeans did? Or: what if magic existed, or zombies?
There are so many possibilities to work with because history hinges so much on chance and small decisions that exploded into huge, earth-shattering events. And that’s the beauty of alternate history: the last 6000 years becomes a veritable playground of events and decisions, so if you tweak one thing, everything can change. Also, it’s fun to weave speculative fiction elements into history.
So without further ado: are some of my favourite alternate history books! For the purposes of this list, alternate history is where the timeline diverges, rather than secret underpinnings where history isn’t what we thought it was. I love those too, but it ain’t alt history.
What if the Library of Alexandria survived?
Ink and Bone (The Great Library #1) by Rachel Caine
One of the biggest gripes for historians is the Great Library of Alexandria being burnt, pillaged, and destroyed. (Thanks, Julius Caesar!) Holding an estimated 400,000 scrolls, the Great Library’s destruction means that a great wealth of knowledge from the ancient world was lost. Ink and Bone proposes a world where the library has survived, but books are a highly regulated commodity only open to the elite scholars. This is such a cool series; I only read the first book but I really liked it–and come on. The Library of Alexandria surviving is something we all want to see.
What if Vlad the Impaler was a woman?
And I Darken (The Conqueror’s Saga #1) by Kiersten White
And I Darken proposes all the cruelty of Vlad the Impaler, yet as a woman, and it is exactly as incredible as you’d think it is. Vlad Dracul becomes Ladislav–Lada–who would have eventually inherited the voivodeship of Wallachia, as in our timeline. What I love about this book is that it sticks so close to the original timeline, with so many events in Lada and her brother Radu’s life being true to history, but it creates a whole new story out of one minor shift, one change in gender. Because of course, Lada is not in line to be voivode of Wallachia unlike Vlad was. She has to fight for it–and fight for it she does. The setting is also wonderfully atmospheric, taking place just before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
What if the American Civil War had zombies?
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
You’d think that zombies and history is an incongruous mix, but Justina Ireland pulls it off perfectly in Dread Nation, where the dead began to walk at the Battle of Gettysburg. Nearly twenty years later, society is rebuilding, with the use of native and African-American soldiers to protect whites from zombies, or shamblers. It’s a brutal yet necessary commentary on slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy, but Dread Nation is also a whole lot of fun when it comes to the zombie-killing. In a world where most of our zombie stories are post-apocalyptic, it is so nice to see a historical spin on the genre.
What if the weapons in World War One were different?
Leviathan (Leviathan #1) by Scott Westerfeld
This is another book that integrates elements of speculative fiction into history. In Leviathan, the Allied Powers have fabricated large, sentient beasts with a multitude of uses, while the Central Powers use “clankers”–mecha-like robots powered by steam. Entangled in it is Deryn, a British girl pretending to be a boy so she can fight, and Alek, the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It’s such a fun series, and actually thinks about the use of different weapons and how it can affect the timeline of the war–the stalemate caused by trench warfare is absent in Leviathan, with airships and zeppelins making aerial combat more of a reality.
What if women could enlist in the Second World War?
Front Lines by Michael Grant
Women certainly had a significant role in the military during the Second World War as nurses and supply pilots (more on that later, probably), but were not allowed in combat until 2013. Front Lines removes that barrier for women and allows them to enlist in the infantry and take part in combat. The book centres around a group of women who have enlisted in the U.S. Army in the Second World War. It’s an interesting look at gender roles during the Second World War that we don’t always see in war fiction.
What if the Axis Powers won the Second World War?
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
This is one of the most asked questions in alternate history, and there are a veritable multitude of books that propose scenarios regarding an Axis victory. Wolf by Wolf, however, puts its own spin on this question, and centres around Yael, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who has to survive and fight back in a world inherently hostile to her. There are some speculative fiction elements to this book, but it’s a consequence of the very real and horrific Nazi experimentation on Jewish people in concentration camps.
What if the British Empire never fell?
That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
The British Empire slowly declined over the twentieth century, losing all its colonies until 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China. That Inevitable Victorian Thing brings in ways to prevent this decline at its prime, where Queen Victoria was able to secure the Empire with marriages to nobility of the colonies, raising colonies to a more equitable status resulting in a multicultural British Empire. I do have a lot of problems with the worldbuilding – y’all think the royal family in the early 1900s would have deigned to marry people of colour? – it’s still an interesting look at colonialism, even if I don’t entirely agree with it.