May 15

Discover The Best In Alternate History Fantasy: 12 Must-Read Novels


Imagine a world where the Roman Empire never fell, where dragons roam the skies of Victorian London, or where World War II was fought not with tanks and planes, but with magic and sorcery. Welcome to the mesmerizing realm of alternate history fantasy, a genre that takes the familiar threads of our past and weaves them into something marvelously unexpected.

Alternate history fantasy is where the "what ifs" of history meet the boundless possibilities of the fantastical. It's a playground for the imagination, allowing readers to explore worlds that are both eerily recognizable and thrillingly new. By reimagining historical events and infusing them with magical elements, this genre offers a fresh lens through which we can examine our own reality.

As acclaimed author Philip K. Dick once mused, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” In alternate history fantasy, authors challenge the very notion of what is real, creating worlds where the boundaries of history and fantasy blur. It’s this blending of the known and the unknown that captivates readers, inviting them to question how different choices and fantastical elements could have reshaped the world we live in today.

This genre doesn’t just offer escapism; it provides a unique way to reflect on cultural and societal themes. By altering key historical moments, authors can explore issues of power, identity, and morality in ways that are both thought-provoking and entertaining. Whether it's a tale of a steampunk American Revolution or a medieval Europe where sorcery determines the fate of nations, alternate history fantasy is a genre that promises to enchant, challenge, and inspire.

So, if you’re ready to embark on a journey through time and imagination, where history is rewritten with a stroke of magic, buckle up. The worlds of alternate history fantasy are waiting to be discovered, and each one holds the promise of an adventure unlike any other.

Alternate History Fantasy Is For You If...

Alternate history fantasy is for you if you’ve ever looked at a history book and thought, "This is great, but where are the wizards?" If you relish the thrill of the unexpected, where a single twist can turn the course of history into a tapestry of magical intrigue and epic adventure, then this genre is your perfect escape.

Imagine a world where Joan of Arc wielded a flaming sword of divine magic or where the Industrial Revolution was powered by alchemical engines. Alternate history fantasy takes the “what ifs” of our past and transforms them into fantastical realms where the possibilities are as limitless as your imagination. It's for those who love to speculate on how a single change—a different decision, a magical intervention—could create an entirely new world.

This genre is a treasure trove for fans of deep world-building and intricate plots. It combines the best elements of historical fiction with the limitless creativity of fantasy. As George R.R. Martin notes, "The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams." In alternate history fantasy, those dreams are grounded in the rich soil of our shared past, making them all the more compelling.

Alternate history fantasy is for you if:

  • You enjoy reimagining historical events: If you find joy in pondering how the Battle of Hastings might have turned out if King Harold had a battalion of dragon riders, then this genre will thrill you.
  • You appreciate complex and detailed world-building: The blending of historical accuracy with fantastical elements creates worlds that are both familiar and wonderfully strange, offering a unique reading experience.
  • You love stories that challenge your perspective: By altering history, these novels often explore themes of power, identity, and morality in ways that are both thought-provoking and entertaining.
  • You crave epic adventures with a twist: Whether it’s a magical Cold War or a Renaissance dominated by sorcery, alternate history fantasy provides the excitement of epic tales with the added thrill of unexpected twists.

Top Twelve Best Alternate History Fantasy Novels

As Lev Grossman, author of "The Magicians," puts it, "Fantasy is not antithetical to reality, but a heightened, intensified version of it." Alternate history fantasy amplifies the resonance of our past with the magic of the impossible, creating a genre that is as intellectually stimulating as it is wildly entertaining.

So, if you’re ready to step through the looking glass and into a world where history is reimagined with a dash of the fantastical, alternate history fantasy is calling your name. Prepare for a journey where the past is not just a record of what was, but a canvas of what could be.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" by Susanna Clarke is a richly detailed historical fantasy set in an alternate 19th-century England, where magic once flourished but has since faded into obscurity. The story begins with the reclusive Mr. Norrell, a scholar who aims to bring practical magic back to England. He demonstrates his power by making the statues of York Minster speak and by summoning a fairy to aid in his efforts, securing a place for himself among the political elite.

Enter Jonathan Strange, a young and charismatic magician who becomes Norrell's student. While Norrell is cautious and conservative in his use of magic, Strange is bold and adventurous. Their partnership initially thrives, but soon, ideological differences drive them apart. Strange's fascination with the darker aspects of magic, including the mysterious Raven King, puts him at odds with Norrell's more restrained approach.

As the Napoleonic Wars rage, Strange uses his magic to aid the British army, conjuring illusions and manipulating weather. However, his growing obsession with forbidden magic leads him down a dangerous path, threatening his sanity and his marriage to the devoted Arabella.

"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Strange muses. "I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could." This quote encapsulates the tension between morality and power that runs throughout the novel.

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" is a masterful blend of history and fantasy, offering readers a world where the boundaries of reality and magic blur. It's a tale of ambition, rivalry, and the enduring power of enchantment, perfect for those who enjoy immersive storytelling and richly imagined worlds.

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

"The Guns of the South" by Harry Turtledove is a riveting alternate history novel that reimagines the American Civil War with a fantastical twist. The story begins in 1864, with the Confederacy on the brink of defeat. Suddenly, a mysterious group called America Will Break, armed with advanced weaponry from the future—specifically, AK-47 rifles—appears and offers their support to the Confederate Army.

General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate forces, is initially skeptical but soon recognizes the immense advantage these modern weapons provide. With the superior firepower, the Confederacy turns the tide of the war, winning crucial battles and gaining the upper hand over the Union forces. As the South edges closer to victory, Lee and his men must grapple with the moral and political implications of their new allies and their advanced technology.

Characters such as Nate Caudell, a schoolteacher turned soldier, and the enigmatic leader of America Will Break, Andries Rhoodie, add depth and complexity to the narrative. As the story unfolds, the true motives of the time-travelers come to light, revealing a sinister plan that threatens the very fabric of the nation.

"How can the South lose, now that we have the weapons of the future?" muses a Confederate soldier, capturing the novel's central conflict. "The Guns of the South" explores themes of power, ethics, and the unpredictable consequences of tampering with history.

This novel is a compelling blend of historical fiction and science fiction, perfect for readers who enjoy thought-provoking scenarios and richly detailed alternate realities.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

"Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld is a captivating steampunk adventure set against the backdrop of an alternate World War I, where the warring factions are divided into two distinct technological ideologies: the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Clankers rely on intricate mechanical war machines, while the Darwinists engineer living creatures as their war beasts.

The story follows two main characters: Aleksandar Ferdinand, a Clanker and the son of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who is on the run from those who seek to end his bloodline; and Deryn Sharp, a daring girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Deryn serves aboard the Leviathan, a massive airship made from a genetically modified whale, teeming with an ecosystem of fantastical creatures.

When their paths cross, Alek and Deryn must navigate their prejudices and differences to survive. Their unlikely friendship becomes the cornerstone of their struggle against common enemies. "Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend," Deryn reflects, highlighting the theme of alliance amidst conflict.

Set in a richly imaginative world where technology and biology blend in astonishing ways, "Leviathan" is a thrilling tale of bravery, innovation, and the power of collaboration. This novel is perfect for readers who love a mix of historical intrigue and inventive science fiction, wrapped up in an epic adventure.

The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling

"The Peshawar Lancers" by S.M. Stirling is a gripping alternate history novel set in a world where a catastrophic event in 1878—a comet strike—has drastically altered the course of history. The comet impact caused massive climatic changes, pushing the British Empire to relocate its capital to India, now the heart of its power. The year is 2025, and the British Empire is thriving in this new world order, with steam technology and Victorian values still prevalent.

The story follows Athelstane King, a captain in the elite Peshawar Lancers, a regiment charged with defending the empire's frontiers. King is drawn into a web of intrigue when he uncovers a Russian plot to destabilize the empire. The Russians, now the principal enemies of the British, have their own sinister agenda, driven by a mysterious, prophetic cult that seeks to bring about a new dark age.

Joining King in his perilous mission are his sister Cassandra, a brilliant and determined scientist, and Narayan Singh, his loyal and resourceful sergeant. Together, they navigate a world of political conspiracies, hidden dangers, and steampunk technology.

As King battles enemies both seen and unseen, he reflects, "The empire is more than just borders and armies; it's the people who believe in it." "The Peshawar Lancers" masterfully combines action, espionage, and richly detailed world-building, offering readers a thrilling adventure set in a vividly reimagined past. Perfect for fans of historical fiction and speculative fantasy, this novel delivers an exhilarating ride through an alternate history that feels both familiar and fantastically new.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

"The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick is a thought-provoking alternate history novel set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II. The story takes place in 1962, in a divided United States, with the Japanese controlling the Pacific States of America and the Nazis ruling the East Coast. The Rocky Mountain States serve as a neutral buffer zone.

The plot weaves together the lives of several characters, each grappling with the oppressive realities of this dystopian world. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor in the Japanese-controlled zone, becomes intrigued by a forbidden book titled *The Grasshopper Lies Heavy*, which imagines an alternate reality where the Allies won the war. This book leads her on a quest to find its reclusive author, the titular "Man in the High Castle."

Meanwhile, Frank Frink, Juliana's estranged husband, works in a factory covertly producing American historical artifacts, and Mr. Tagomi, a high-ranking Japanese trade official, faces moral dilemmas as he navigates the complex political landscape. Their paths intersect in unexpected ways, revealing the fragile nature of their world.

"A reality is just a point of view," reflects a character, encapsulating the novel's exploration of subjective truths. "The Man in the High Castle" delves into themes of power, identity, and resistance, offering a chilling yet compelling vision of a world that might have been. This novel is a must-read for fans of speculative fiction and those intrigued by the intricate dance between history and imagination.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

"His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik is a thrilling historical fantasy that reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with an extraordinary twist—dragons are not only real, but they are also pivotal to the military strategies of the era. The story follows Captain Will Laurence, a steadfast officer in the British Navy, whose life takes an unexpected turn when his ship captures a French vessel carrying a rare dragon egg.

When the egg hatches, the young dragon, Temeraire, imprints on Laurence, forging a deep and unbreakable bond. Laurence is thrust into the Aerial Corps, an elite division of the military where dragons and their riders are trained for combat. The novel explores their journey as they navigate the challenges of this new life, forming strong alliances and facing formidable enemies.

Set against the backdrop of a war-torn Europe, the novel introduces readers to a rich tapestry of characters, including the courageous aviators of the Aerial Corps and their loyal dragon companions. Temeraire, with his intelligence and curiosity, quickly becomes a beloved character, challenging traditional beliefs and expectations.

"Does it ever get easier?" Laurence wonders, grappling with his new responsibilities. "His Majesty's Dragon" deftly combines the sweep of epic historical battles with the intimate development of an unlikely friendship. This novel is perfect for fans of alternate history and fantasy, offering a compelling blend of adventure, loyalty, and the wonder of flight.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon is a captivating alternate history novel set in Sitka, Alaska, where a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees has become a bustling metropolis. The story unfolds in a world where the State of Israel was destroyed in 1948, leading to the creation of this unique Jewish homeland in Alaska, set to revert to American control after sixty years.

The novel centers on Meyer Landsman, a down-and-out homicide detective living in a run-down hotel. Landsman’s life takes a dramatic turn when a heroin-addicted chess prodigy, who also happens to be his neighbor, is found murdered. Determined to solve the case, Landsman is drawn into a complex web of intrigue involving gangsters, rabbis, and conspiracies that threaten the fragile peace of the Sitka District.

Alongside his partner, the half-Tlingit, half-Jewish Berko Shemets, and his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, who is now his boss, Landsman navigates the dark underbelly of this cold and somber city. The investigation uncovers secrets that link the murder to broader political and religious machinations, forcing Landsman to confront his own demons.

“Hope, I find, is a dirty four-letter word,” reflects Landsman, encapsulating the novel’s gritty tone. "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a masterful blend of noir and alternate history, filled with rich characterizations and a plot that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. This novel is perfect for those who enjoy a mix of detective fiction and imaginative world-building.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a powerful and imaginative reimagining of the historic network that helped enslaved African Americans escape to freedom. In Whitehead's novel, the Underground Railroad is depicted as an actual subterranean railway, complete with conductors, engineers, and a series of hidden tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.

The story follows Cora, a young enslaved woman on a Georgia plantation who bravely decides to escape the brutal conditions of her life. She is joined by Caesar, a fellow slave who has learned about the Underground Railroad. Together, they embark on a harrowing journey to find freedom, pursued relentlessly by the ruthless slave catcher Ridgeway.

As Cora travels from state to state, each stop on the railroad reveals different aspects of America’s historical and social landscape, from a seemingly safe haven in South Carolina to the nightmarish realities of North Carolina. Through these varied experiences, Cora faces both external dangers and internal struggles, seeking not just freedom, but a sense of self and belonging.

"Cora's determination to escape is not just a physical journey, but a journey towards her own humanity," the novel suggests, emphasizing the depth of her character and the profound themes of the book. "The Underground Railroad" is an unforgettable narrative of resilience and hope, blending historical fiction with magical realism to create a poignant exploration of the quest for freedom. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in stories of courage and the enduring fight for justice.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

"The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth is a gripping alternate history novel that imagines a chilling scenario where aviation hero Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Set in the early 1940s, the story is told through the eyes of young Philip Roth, growing up in a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey.

Lindbergh’s presidency ushers in an era of isolationism and xenophobia, with his administration fostering an anti-Semitic climate under the guise of promoting American values. As Lindbergh signs treaties with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, fear and uncertainty grip the nation. The Roth family, along with other Jewish families, begins to feel the impact of these changes through government-sanctioned programs that encourage the assimilation of Jewish children into "American" culture and the relocation of Jewish families to the heartland.

The novel captures the escalating tension and paranoia as Philip’s father, Herman, a staunch opponent of Lindbergh, becomes increasingly vocal about the dangers facing the Jewish community. Meanwhile, Philip’s older brother, Sandy, gets swept up in the pro-Lindbergh sentiment, causing deep familial rifts.

"A country is no better than its leaders," muses Herman, highlighting the novel’s exploration of leadership and moral courage. "The Plot Against America" is a poignant examination of how democracy can be undermined from within and the resilience required to confront such threats. Roth’s masterful storytelling makes this a compelling read for anyone interested in the fragility of freedom and the complexities of national identity.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" by Seth Grahame-Smith is a thrilling and inventive reimagining of American history, blending real events with supernatural elements. The novel portrays Abraham Lincoln not just as the 16th President of the United States, but also as a relentless vampire hunter.

The story begins with young Abraham discovering that his mother’s death was caused by a vampire. This revelation sets him on a path of vengeance. Armed with his trusty axe, Lincoln vows to rid the nation of the vampire plague. As he grows older, Lincoln balances his political ambitions with his secret life as a vampire slayer, battling bloodthirsty creatures while rising through the ranks of American politics.

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, the novel reveals that vampires are using the chaos of the conflict to expand their numbers and power. Lincoln’s mission becomes even more urgent as he realizes that the fate of the nation hinges on his ability to defeat these supernatural foes. With the help of allies like the enigmatic Henry Sturges, Lincoln faces both human and undead enemies in a bid to save the Union.

"History prefers legends to men," reflects Lincoln, underscoring the novel’s blending of myth and reality. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is a fast-paced, action-packed tale that offers a fresh perspective on a beloved historical figure. It’s perfect for readers who enjoy a mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and horror, making history both engaging and eerily entertaining.

The City & the City by China Miéville

"The City & the City" by China Miéville is a mesmerizing blend of crime thriller and speculative fiction, set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These cities occupy the same geographical space but are perceived as separate entities by their citizens, who are trained from birth to "unsee" the other city, creating a complex and fascinating social fabric.

The story follows Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad, who is called to investigate the murder of a young woman found in Besźel. As Borlú delves deeper into the case, he discovers that the victim, a foreign student named Mahalia Geary, was involved in controversial research about the cities' mysterious separation.

Borlú’s investigation takes him across the invisible border into Ul Qoma, where he teams up with Officer Qussim Dhatt. Together, they navigate the intricate politics and tensions between the cities, uncovering a conspiracy that challenges the very foundations of their existence. The enigma of the "Breach," a secretive force that polices the boundaries between Besźel and Ul Qoma, adds another layer of danger and intrigue.

"Nothing is what it seems," Borlú reflects, capturing the essence of the novel’s exploration of perception and reality. "The City & the City" is a masterful narrative that combines elements of noir and metaphysical speculation, offering readers a thought-provoking and gripping tale. This novel is perfect for those who enjoy complex, imaginative stories that challenge the way we see the world.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

"The Iron Dragon's Daughter" by Michael Swanwick is a dark, inventive fantasy that blends elements of steampunk, fairy tales, and social critique. The story follows Jane, a human girl trapped in a nightmarish industrial world where she is enslaved in a factory that builds sentient, mechanical dragons.

Jane's life changes when she encounters an ancient, sentient dragon named Melanchthon. With the dragon's help, she escapes the factory, embarking on a tumultuous journey through a fantastical landscape filled with both wonder and peril. Along the way, Jane navigates various facets of society, from the grotesque and magical to the mundane and bureaucratic, seeking freedom and a sense of belonging.

Set in a world where magic and technology coexist, Jane's quest is marked by her struggle to reconcile her human identity with the bizarre, often hostile environments she encounters. Characters such as her enigmatic allies and dangerous foes add depth to her journey, each representing different aspects of the fantastical world she inhabits.

"Sometimes you have to destroy everything to make something better," reflects Jane, highlighting the novel's themes of transformation and rebellion. "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" is a compelling tale of resilience and self-discovery, perfect for readers who appreciate rich, multifaceted worlds and complex characters. Swanwick's narrative challenges conventions, offering a unique and thought-provoking take on the fantasy genre.


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