What if the pilgrims never arrived in America? What if Germany had won World War II? What if the people condemned in the Salem witch trials were truly witches who came back to life for revenge?
Alternate history books explore “what if” questions like these, offering readers a fresh look at the past, and sometimes even the present.
What Are Alternate History Books?
Alternate history novels fall under the speculative fiction genre. Sometimes the setting may be in the real world, but certain important details are altered for a unique perspective.
Others explore elements of fantasy and ponder how history might have turned out if these elements were in place.
Alternate History Novels to Boggle Your Mind
Here is a list of alternate history books to get you thinking:
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
What if Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean and who was also suspected of being in favor of the Nazis, had won the presidential election in 1940? What would have happened to America?
11/22/63 by Stephen King
A high school English teacher travels back to 1963 to prevent the assassination of JFK in this alternate history novel by master storyteller Stephen King.
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
One of the greatest tragedies in European history was the Black Plague, which killed a huge percentage of the population. What if the plague wiped out 99% of Europeans, and the Chinese and Muslim cultures became the dominant forces in the world?
Ruled Brittania by Harry Turtledove
What if the King of Spain ruled England? Set in 1597, this book sees William Shakespeare writing for political reasons, in order to rouse up his people to plead for their imprisoned queen and fight against their oppressors.
The Separation by Christopher Priest
A mysterious figure by the name of J.L. Sawyer contributed to the end of World War II. But J.L. Sawyer is actually the initials of identical twins Joe and Jack, one of whom is a conscientious objector while the other is a bomber pilot.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
What if a group of British philantropists bought land in Africa to serve as a refuge for Africans under attack by King Leopold’s control in the Congo? How would this new society thrive in this haven called Everfair?
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
What if World War II had ended differently, with the Axis Powers winning? This is one of the better-known books that explores that alternate history, imagining an America ruled by Germany and Japan.
The Gate of Worlds by Robert Silverberg
Another novel exploring the Black Plague, this book discusses what would have happened if it killed 75% of the European population, leaving Russia, Japan, Turkey, the Incas, and the Aztecs as the world powers.
The Small Change Trilogy by Jo Walton
This trilogy opens with Farthing, which explores what would have happened if England made peace with Germany instead of starting a war. The next two novels follow an investigation of the fictional murder in the opening scenes of the first book, while portraying Europe’s continued decline.
Pavane by Keith Roberts
What if England’s Good Queen Bess was assassinated, and in the resulting chaos, the Spanish Armada actually succeeded in stopping the spread of Protestantism?
Fatherland by Robert Harris
This novel explores what would have happened if Germany won World War II, and it’s now twenty years later where everyone is preparing to celebrate the Führer’s seventy-fifth birthday, when a conspiracy surfaces that Detective Xavier March needs to stop.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
What if a Jewish district was established in Alaska when the state of Israel fell? What would the Jewish community look like, and how would they cope if the establishment of the district had the condition of reverting it back to the Alaskans after 60 years?
Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham
A military experiment in 2021 sends an international armada to travel back to 1942, right in the middle of the Midway encounter, which was the most important U.S. victory in World War II. But what if the time travelers ended up altering this battle by assisting the Japanese?
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
What if Africans had enslaved Europeans instead of the other way around? What would 21st century Great Britain look like, with slavery already abolished but segregation remaining, and racial mixing is still forbidden?
The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove
What if a group of time-travelers supplied the Northern Virginia Army with weapons to help the Confederates win the Civil War?
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
What if the Reformation and World War II never happened, and now, in 1974, church leaders offer a gifted choirboy bordering on puberty the opportunity to preserve his soprano voice—through castration?
Alternate History Stories with Fantasy Elements
These books explore alternate histories with some unrealistic elements, but offer a unique look at the past:
Spiritwalker Series by Kate Elliott
This book starts with a 19th century that’s still in the Ice Age, and spirits, mages, and dragons coexist with human beings.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This book explores a history where magic is real, with two magicians rising to power during the Napoleonic wars, which forever changes the course of history. The great thing about this book is that the writing itself if in the 19th century style, and it even contains footnotes to present a whole new world!
His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire Series) by Naomi Novick
Another book that explores history with dragons, this book starts off being faithful to actual history, with the exception of the dragons. Slowly, the presence of the dragons results in great power shifts that alter the course of events.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
What if the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad to take slaves to a land of freedom? The book follows Cora and Caesar as they ride the train from Georgia, stopping at different points along the South and encountering many kinds of oppression.
Making History by Stephen Fry
A historian partners with a physicist to create a time machine and prevent the birth of Adolf Hitler. They succeed, and Hitler doesn’t exist in this world, but fascism and anti-Semitism still crop up somehow.
Reading Alternate Histories
Reading alternate histories can sometimes help us appreciate the little things, as we see the repercussions that an event can have on history.
But even without that angle, reading them can be a thought-provoking experience overall, so plan on including a few of these in your reading list.
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