Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish, and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. It’s all about books, lists and sharing the love we have of both with our bookish friends. Today is a (sub)genre freebie, and I’m sharing some favourite alternate histories.
I’m a sucker for a story that takes the world as we know it and twists it. I arbitrarily divide this into two subgenres: alternate history, where the story is recognisably set in a past that never happened; and speculative fiction, where the action takes place now or a in a near-future where some fundamental change has taken (or is taking) place.
The Small Change trilogy – Jo Walton
WWII is a favourite point of departure for alternate histories (Fatherland by Robert Harris is a classic). Walton’s ‘what if’ trilogy starts with Farthing, a Gosford Park-esque whodunnit set as Britain backs away from war with Nazi Germany. It establishes a chilling tone for a trilogy that explores the awful consequences.
The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal
Kowal’s Hugo winner is refreshing for being an alternative space race, with the Nazis fully defeated before a meteorite hits the Eastern Seaboard and causes a climate catastrophe. Science, feminism, anxiety, happy marriages, and bloody-minded determination make this a favourite.
River of Teeth – Sarah Gailey
Almost exactly what you would expect from a 19th century Mississippi heist caper: come for the paddle steamer casino, crooked business dealings and card sharks, stay for the fabulously diverse team of conpeople and their hippos. Yes, really. I must get round to reading the sequel.
Romanitas – Sophia McDougall
This is set in the modern day, but as the core concept is that the sun never set on the Roman Empire, I feel it fits right in. In spite of the vidscreens and airplanes, this feels very Roman too – two thousand years later, it’s still all bloodthirsty Imperial politics, with two escaped British slaves very much out of their depth.
The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson
Hats off to Robinson for the scope of this Hugo nominee, which lays down a new world history after the Black Death wipes out 99% of Europe’s population (rather than ‘just’ a third). Effectively a series of short stories told over centuries, this explores the social and political changes that result.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P Djèlí Clark
Many of my favourites are more fanciful, where a world-building twist sets up new possibilities. I loved Tram Car for being an alternate early 20th century where the return of djinn has changed the balance of colonial power. It’s a fabulous setting for tales of supernatural policing – and there’s a novel on the way, hooray!
Temeraire – Naomi Novik
Speaking of fanciful, Novik’s take on the Napoleonic Wars serves up Master and Commander style camaraderie in the draconic Aerial Corps. Expect dragons, duty, politics and well-dressed military officers. It’s the deeply affecting friendship between Captain Will Laurence and book-loving dragon Temeraire that steals the show though.
Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Welcome to a Regency England in which the Royal Society are magicians and the gates to Faerie are (mostly) open. Balls, frocks, and romance all feature in these mannered take-downs of traditional sexism and racism, with two of my favourite female characters (Prunella and Mak Genggang) turning English expectations upside down.
Dominion of the Fallen – Aliette de Bodard
In Aliette de Bodard’s darkly glittering trilogy, defeat in the War on Heaven brought the Fallen to Earth and history has reshaped around their rule. In the aftermath of the latest devastating conflict, Paris is a dangerous wasteland, but the Fallen pursue their bids for power in the ruins. Atmospheric stuff.
And as that’s not quite ten, let’s hear it for the many alternate histories still languishing on my TBR: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick, The Separation by Christopher Priest and Obsidian and Blood by Aliette de Bodard – not to mention loads of speculative fiction where the action is set in a twisted modern day or near future (but I’ll save that topic for another Tuesday!)
Do you have any alternate histories you’d recommend?