My Favourite Alternate History Novels

14 Nov

I went back and forwards on a lot of these titles – there are the ones that got me into alternate history, or inspired my writing, and/or made a major impression on the field.  I don’t pretend they’re the best of the best, but most of them strike a good balance between literature and pulp (with a couple of pure literature books).

YMMV, as always.

The Guns of the South (Harry Turtledove)

Point of Divergence (POD): American Civil War, Confederate Victory

Basic Concept: On the verge of defeat, the Confederate States of America is saved by time-travellers from 20??.  However, the time travellers have dark motives for saving the ‘lost cause’.

The Good: An excellent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of an infusion of modern tech, plus forcing the CSA to come to grips with what it means to be an independent state (and how their descendents came to view their ‘peculiar institution’ as peculiarly vile.)

The Bad: there has been a lot of debate recently about how easily the CSA abolished slavery in this novel and the treatment of General Lee, who was – historically – a slaveowner himself.

Ruled Britannia (Harry Turtledove)

POD: Spanish Armada, Spanish Victory

Basic Concept: In an occupied England, Will Shakespeare is recruited into a plot to liberate England from the Spanish.

The Good: Very clever depiction of Shakespeare and the other characters.

The Bad: Not really enough action for me, although the intrigue is very well done.

Red Storm Rising (Tom Clancy)

POD: NATO/Warsaw Pact War in 198?

Basic Concept: Desperately short of oil, the USSR starts a war in Europe (it makes sense in context).

The Good: While not ‘pure’ AH, the book is an excellent depiction of a conventional WW3 that avoids many of the major pitfalls.

The Bad:  Could have been spread out over three books with ease.

Island in the Sea of Time (SM Stirling)

POD: Bronze Ages

Basic Concept: The island of Nantucket finds itself back in the Bronze Ages and has to rebuild civilisation from scratch.

The Good: A brilliantly effective depiction of the era, plus excellent assessment of resources available to both the islanders and the locals.

The Bad:  Some of the side-characters are complete idiots. 

The Domination (SM Stirling)

POD: American Revolution – UK takes South Africa early, then turns it into a home for American Loyalists.

Basic Concept:  South Africa, called the Domination of the Draka in this timeline, expands into a major global power, then takes over the world with an army of genetic superhumans.

The Good: Stirling creates a fantastic sense of a very different world, along with advanced technology (the past’s tomorrow) and different tactical problems for his heroes.

The Bad: The timeline is so completely implausible that it cannot be taken seriously.

WorldWar (Harry Turtledove)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: Shortly before the historical Battle of Midway, an alien invasion force (with 2000-era weaponry) descends from the skies and invades Earth.

The Good: Turtledove does an excellent paranoiac view of the war, with both human and alien characters, that manages to avoid some clichés (no total human alliance, for example).

The Bad: The storyline could have been condensed a little.

How Few Remain (Harry Turtledove)

POD: American Civil War

Basic Concept: A decade or so after the CSA won its independence, the USA and CSA go to war once again.

The Good: Turtledove does an excellent paranoiac view of the war (like WorldWar) and includes all sorts of historical characters, from Lincoln to Fredrick Douglas and Custer.

The Bad: The book is a sweeping depiction of a world, rather than a focused storyline.  Less noticeable here, but more obvious in the ongoing series following the alternate WW1 and WW2.

Lest Darkness Fall (L. Sprague deCamp)

POD: Late Roman Empire

Basic Concept: A time-traveller from the 1930s is sent back to the Roman Empire.  He sets out to keep the empire from falling and pretty much succeeds.

The Good: One of the first and still one of the best, touching on both realistic technical introductions and the limits faced by people trying to change the world.

The Bad: Not much really – less action than one might like?

Hitler Has Won (Frederic Mullally)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: Russia has fallen, the UK is steadily being ground down, the US is isolationist, and, in Nazi Germany, a victorious Hitler’s mania is reaching new heights.

The Good: A very chilling depiction of a post-war Germany in a Nazi Victory Timeline, with the main character being forced to realise just what sort of monster he’d served.

The Bad: The denouncement is difficult to believe even remotely plausible.

1901 (Robert Convey)

POD: Post American-Spanish War

Basic Concept: determined to snatch the Spanish territories captured by the US during the last war, Imperial Germany invades the United States.

The Good: A pretty-much unique scenario and sheer coolness helps override both plausibility and character problems.  Also does some good thinking on the geopolitical effects of a US-Germany War.

The Bad: The plot is very basic and the characters tissue-thin.

The Last Article (Harry Turtledove)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: Having invaded Britain, the Germans have reached and occupied India, bringing them into conflict with Indian Nationalists such as Nehru and Gandhi.

The Good: A terrifying depiction of what happens when ‘peaceful non-compliance’ based on idealism rather than reality meets an enemy lacking in anything resembling a conscience.

The Bad: Not much.  Technically, a short story rather than a novel; could be expended without too much trouble.

Ring of Fire (Eric Flint, David Weber, various others)

POD: Thirty Years War

Basic Concept: Grantville, an American mining town, is sent back in time to 1632, where they start the American Revolution a hundred years plus early.

The Good: A very good look at the impact of American ideals and technology, as well as character development and constantly-expanding butterflies.

The Bad: Some books and threadlines are more interesting than others. 

Invasion (Kenneth Macksey)

POD: World War Two

Basic Concept: a fictional campaign history of Operation Sealion, the unmentionable sea mammal, where Nazi Germany really does try to invade England.

The Good: Kenneth Macksey does a very good job of making it plausible.

The Bad: The above is hotly debated.  The Germans get a lot of luck and get a lot of things right which, historically, they might not have done.

For Want of a Nail (Robert Sobel)

POD: American Revolution

Basic Concept: A fictional history book of a world where Britain defeated the rebels during the American Revolution and die-hard rebels headed west to build their own country, eventually splitting the continent in two as global affairs started to impinge upon the alternate Americas.

The Good: Very good, very detailed, very interesting if somewhat dry.

The Bad: Quite a few moments push plausibility to breaking point, ranging from a semi-easy solution to race relations to a corporation with the power and influence of a major global power.

11 Responses to “My Favourite Alternate History Novels”

  1. filipboa0637 November 14, 2021 at 8:31 am #

    Very “gun heavy” ? No Videssos ? No medieval or ancient timeline ?

  2. Cathy Howat November 14, 2021 at 9:51 am #

    I think you mean PANORAMIC, not PARANOIAC!

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  3. Marshall Ellis November 14, 2021 at 2:08 pm #

    I loved the Island in the Sea of Time series, apart from I seem to recall thinking it dragged slightly in places in the latter books. My main complaint was as the end of book three got closer and closer, there was NO WAY it could possibly resolve without there being more book than remained. That it did, abruptly, felt rather deus ex to me. Stirling spawned a thousand threads on soc.history.what-if, with people introducing endless “ISOT” scenarios to discuss, where this or that area from this or that time was transported to some other time. Stirling also made the ASB (Alien Space Bats as a hand waving explanation of the how of a divergence) concept more known outside of S.H.W-I when he created Dies the Fire to explore what happened to the rest of the world after Nantucket went back in time.

    • Juan Suros November 15, 2021 at 2:33 pm #

      I loved the early books of this series, only to end up rooting for the protagonists by the end. These books always rig the field for the good guys, but it can go too far.

  4. Warren The Ape November 15, 2021 at 3:14 am #

    Interesting. No mention of:

    The Man in the High Castle
    The West of Eden books by Harry Harrison
    Axis of Time books by John Birmingham

    But then again, I read most of the ones you listed to. For Want of a Nail a long time ago. The Two Georges as well.

  5. Juan Suros November 15, 2021 at 2:42 pm #

    The great tragedy of the WorldWar books was the public reaction to a SS Officer as a hero of the first trilogy. He was a great character, and not a nazi, but it was very controversial at the time. Turtledove wrote the remaining books with an American baseball player as protagonist. I followed the series to the bitter end, ten books I believe. It was never the same.

  6. dspring November 15, 2021 at 6:07 pm #

    I would add OPERATION HERKULES (The Malta Fulcrum WW2 Alternate History Series Book 1) by Scott Ward as an excellent alternate history as well. The premise is that Hitler decided to invade Malta and through a series of plausible consequences over three books, Hitler was able to win the war.

  7. Warren The Ape November 15, 2021 at 7:18 pm #

    Another good alt history: The War of the Worlds follow up by Scott Washburn

    Very much like how Turtledove did the WorldWar books, but with less characters. And like WorldWar, Washburn does an awesome job of developing the Martians and Martian characters. Esp with regards to who their reproduction method drove them to invade Earth.

    Highly recommended.

  8. peterrhodan November 15, 2021 at 7:42 pm #

    Have you read Rudolf will Reign and Consequences of an Errant Shot by Hardinge?
    The writing style is a bit , hmmm, but the stories and historical alternatives are well worked out and fascinating….. I very much recommend them to any AH buffs

  9. Tinla November 16, 2021 at 6:32 am #

    Regarding Hitler has Won, you write “ The Bad: The denouncement is difficult to believe even remotely plausible.” Do you mean denouement? If not, denouncement of what by whom?

  10. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard November 16, 2021 at 10:37 pm #

    I’m going to put in a plug for “The Romanov Rescue” by Tom Kratman, Justin Watson, Kacey Ezell.

    Basic plot is that a high-ranking German Officer decides to set up a rescue of the Romanov family.

    After getting the Kaiser’s approval he recruits Russian POWs under the command of a Russian Officer still loyal to the Tsar.

    Germany is basically only supplying this Russian Loyalist force (as well as getting them into Russia).

    It’s an enjoyable read and while I’m not going to spoil the story, there is room for at least one sequal.

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