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Alternative Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction

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Jan 13, 2014, 12:47pm Top

I don't see a discussion anywhere on this type of book. I am sure there are well thought out books on this genre but most of them I have found to be not very serious Harry Turtledove comes to mind....they are less on history change and more of just a setting for a typical thriller.

I have just finished a pretty decent alternative history book in Dominion by C J Sansom. This I find is an excellent book describing England if it had sued for peace after Dunkirk. It takes place in 1952, 12 years after the event and you get a pretty plausible view of what it would be like to live in England as a satellite under Nazi Germany influence. The only difficulty in the book is that it has a very slow beginning (lasting the first 150 pages of a 700 page book) Sansom seems to overdo character development to the point of being annoying. You are introduced to the main characters and flash back to their childhood for pages on end and I can understand why people give up on the book....especially if you are a "must be interesting in the first 100 pages" or I put it down kind of reader.

Sansom is most noted for his Shardlake historical mystery series which I highly recommend. but now he has branched into more recent historical novels...I did not like his first one titled Winter in Madrid which discussed the Spanish civil war....basically because he constantly flashed back throughout the story and made it a drudgery to read. But Dominion really picks up to be a page turner after 150 pages and becomes a real spy thriller in an alternative history setting.

I am sure there are really good alternative histories out there that do more than just pay lip service to the alternative history. Perhaps you can suggest them here

Jan 13, 2014, 1:44pm Top

Jo Walton's Farthing and subsequent books might fit the bill, with a similar premise to the Sansom book you discussed.

Jan 13, 2014, 3:09pm Top

You might enjoy When William Came by Saki. See the brief Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_William_Came

Jan 13, 2014, 3:12pm Top

Yes...I checked out a couple of her books and Farthing seems to be a pretty good read and is based in facist England (assuming England surrendered to Germany). I shall look for her books....thanks

Jan 13, 2014, 5:48pm Top

You may want to post in the Science Fiction group as well - Alternative history is technically a subgenre of SF :)

The Man in the High Castle is one of the classic ones (and a personal favorite).

As for Turtledove - it depends on which of his books you had read. Some of them are better than others; some are more alternative history than others...

Jan 13, 2014, 9:56pm Top

There are so many I don't know where to begin. Here's what I can think of off the top of my head (I'm using a fairly loose definition of alternative history here. If you have a specific definition, let us know):

Emma Bull's Territory
All the Guy Gavriel Kay books written after A Song of Arbonne.
Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
I'm not fond of it, but many people like Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam
Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union

I second Farthing and Man in the High Castle.

Jan 14, 2014, 6:10am Top

Clive Cussler's novels are alternate histories although they are more readily classed as thrillers than they are as sf. They gradually diverge from historical 'facts' from the 1980s onwards.

Jan 14, 2014, 10:45am Top

S. M. Stirling's Nantucket Event series are great.

Edited: Jan 14, 2014, 11:02am Top

Also enjoyed "Dominion" (#1) and "Man in the High Castle" (#5) which prompted me to buy a book on the "I Ching" although I haven't become a practitioner. A book which came out recently on is on my TBR shelf is The Windsor Faction which is set in a world in which Edward VIII never abdicated — it looks interesting and I'm intending to read it soon but as yet can't comment.

Jan 14, 2014, 12:12pm Top

>5 AnnieMod: >7 TheoClarke: I put Cussler and Turtledove in the category of just using alternative history just as a story setting for a thriller novel...I don't find much depth in their novels though I confess to have only looked at a couple of each author's works and not liked or been inspired by them.

>8 majkia: I have read the Nantucket series by Stirling and liked it....however his other series on post apocalypse I gave up on....they were too stereotype good vs evil .... I really do like post apocalypse books but that is another thread

Jan 14, 2014, 12:16pm Top

>10 Lynxear: I'd agree for Cussler -- he is a thriller writer. Turtledove has both type of novels.

Jan 14, 2014, 12:19pm Top

As far as my likes in the Alternative History fiction....it is much like my likes in Historical fiction and Historical Mystery fiction...I like to immerse myself in the time period...that is why I like CJ Sansom and Peter Tremayne....the stories are excellent and you live in the time period. Novels by Cussler and Turtledove have an emphasis on the thriller aspect...the alternative history is simply there to make the setting.

I am probably not explaining myself well, but hopefully you get my drift.

Jan 14, 2014, 12:22pm Top

It's very hard to tell what you're going to get with Turtledove. He's written some very interesting alternate histories (most of the one's I've enjoyed have been shorter pieces), but you can't always tell without giving them 20 pages or so.

Jan 14, 2014, 11:08pm Top

Another practitioner is Harry Conroy. I've read 1901 in which Germany attacks the U.S.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinsonposits a much more severe 14th century black death in Europe, t with the result that Asian countries China , Japan and India become the great explorers and colonial powers.

SS-GB by Len Deighton is a favorite

Jan 15, 2014, 1:08am Top

>13 aulsmith: what is Turtledove's best book using alternative history?

>14 quartzite:

I think "1901" would be an interesting read...it would be interesting to see how Germany would keep supply lines to its armies satisfied.

"The Years of Rice and Salt" is interesting too...you can only read so many WWII novels with Germany winning before you get WWII'd out :)

Jan 15, 2014, 7:09am Top

If you like court room dramas and the American civil war, try the Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. It uses the premise that he survived the shooting and that some of his tactics in dealing with the southern states weren't exactly legal.

Jan 15, 2014, 7:25am Top

Eric Flint's series about the Thirty Years' War is fascinating as the introduction of 20th Century Americans does alter the shape and development of Europe. I studied the Thirty Years' War for A-level exams many years ago and was intrigued to see how some of my favourite people from that period were portrayed. What started as 1632 has developed into a shared world series, so some are better than others.
As I'm an SF and fantasy reader as well as a historian, I like some of Turtledove's books, especially the earlier ones. I think my favourite is Guns of the south but then I'm a retired Civil War re-enactor.

Jan 15, 2014, 9:13am Top

The one of Turtledove's I remember best was a short story where the Mediterranean basin never flooded, so it's a mountainous region and the Neanderthals are still alive, but I don't remember the title. Of non-WWII stuff I also liked the short piece "Departures".

17: I'm afraid that the Eric Flint stories might fall into the OPs idea of an excuse for a thriller.

Jan 15, 2014, 12:49pm Top

>18 aulsmith: "Down in the Bottomlands" (available online over here: http://www.baen.com/chapters/W200108/0671578359___1.htm ) :)

Jan 25, 2014, 9:37am Top

Farthing is one of a trilogy, with Hapenny and Half a Crown being the other two. All three are very well done, which most certainly is not usually the case with alternative history fiction, much of which is, not to put too fine a point on it, garbage.

Also very fine is Resistance by Owen Sheers.

Jan 25, 2014, 10:48am Top

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is a pretty great alternative history novel.

Edited: Jan 29, 2014, 1:30am Top

It seems most alternative fiction revolves around Germany winning WWII or WWI...good stuff but earlier settings would be interesting.

Jan 29, 2014, 7:51am Top

22: I don't think it's true that "most" alternative fiction revolves around WWII. However, most of the novels that I've read that are what I term "real" alternative fiction (where only one thing has changed and the author speculates from there) are set in WWII.

Are you interested in reading short fiction?

What's your main interest here? Historical authenticity? An interesting point where everything changes?

How do you feel about the introduction of fantasy elements?

I do have one other novel I can recommend now: Pamela Sargent's Climb the Wind which is alternative Native American wars in the US after the Civil War.

Jan 29, 2014, 8:03pm Top

one of the most fun alternative fiction books I've read is The Peshawar Lancers

Jan 30, 2014, 1:05am Top

>23 aulsmith: First of all, I love historical fiction...I have read a lot of it whether it be Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series which details battles of the Napoleonic land wars while inserting Dick Sharpe into the action. I enjoy reading the Hornblower series by CS Forrester which takes the Napoleonic wars to the sea. I like reading about the growth of Canada and the USA in the 1800's with books like Shaman by Noah Gordon. I like historical mysteries by CJ Sansom's Shardlake series and Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series...I like reading Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

So as you can see I have a wide range of likes in Historical fiction.

As far as interest goes...the story is important to me...it must be compelling...when it is strictly historical fiction then I am looking for an accurate depiction of life and times including language...nothing spoils a historical book for me than seeing modern slang in a book about ancient times...that is why I dislike Simon Scarrow 's series on Roman times...I read a few then gave up.

When it is a Historical Mystery the same aspects of reading normal historical fiction are important but the added interest in solving a mystery as I read is interesting.

I like books on native Americans such as Sacajawea by Anna Waldo which is a story of the Lewis and Clarke expedition told using diary extracts to form the basis of chapters...I think I would like Climb the Wind I will look for it.

There is a lot of alternative fiction in Sci Fi but I am not a great fan...I read a book that many rated very high ASH: A Secret History by Mary Gentle, this author was supposed to be an expert on medieval times...I did not see it...especially in her battle scenes...there were elements of fantasy in the story - golems, telepathy etc but the story was boring for me and a literary gimmick of pretending that this was a researched time period was lost on me.

Short stories? well the ones I like, I wish were expanded into novels and those I don't like are too long :)

Jan 30, 2014, 7:12am Top

25: Okay, you might try Guy Gavriel Kay's newer books. I call them speculative history rather than alternate history. They are clearly set on Earth in historical periods we recognize but things are off. The astronomy is wrong (two suns? I can't remember now) and Christianity is an off-shoot of Classical paganism rather than of Judaism. But none of this is explained. It's just a given. His writing is very good and characters are the center of the stories. There are sometimes fantastical elements, but only things that the people living at that time in our history would have believed in.

Tigana is set in "Spain" just before the expulsion of the "Moors".
Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are set in "Byzantium" during the reign of "Justianian II" and "Theodora"
The Last Light of the Sun takes place in "Norway" and "Britain" during the reign of "Alfred the Great"
Under Heaven takes place in "China" during the "Tang" dynasty.

Jan 30, 2014, 1:34pm Top

It's The Lions of Al-Rassan that is set in "Spain". Tigana has more fantasy and, to me at least, is more Italian in feel.

There is also A Song for Arbonne which is set in an alternate medieval era Southern France

Jan 30, 2014, 6:00pm Top

27: Thanks. I get those two mixed up a lot.

Feb 17, 2014, 12:52pm Top

Just read the first book in a series called Fires of Alexandria by Thomas K. Carpenter. This one asks the question of what if people recognized the power of Heron's inventions (including the steam engine) and the industrial revolution starts in the 1C rather than the 18th. I liked the initial book, which has barbarians defeating the Romans in Alexandria, but can't comment on where it goes from there. I do plan to continue reading the series.

As to the other series, I agree Turtledove is sporadic. I liked his "What if the Civil War ended in a truce" premise. I read all the Nantucket books and loved them, but was less thrilled with the 1632 (too black and white--the good guys are really really good and the bad guys have no redeeming qualities). I stopped after the first book.

Mar 7, 2014, 12:02am Top

"It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis.

Mar 8, 2014, 2:18pm Top

> 26 It seems that Guy Gavriel Kay is a pretty well respected writer. I like stories set in ancient China so I will be looking for Under Heaven for sure but the others look fine as well.....thanks for the author

May 19, 2014, 8:45am Top

1632 by Eric Flint Best alternative Hx series I know of, 1st book is available as a free download from Webscriptions website.

May 19, 2014, 1:02pm Top

A few more with non-WWI/WWII settings:

Harry Turtledove, Agent of Byzantium . . . short stories set in a world where Mohammed converted to Christianity on the road to Mecca, Islam was never founded, and the Byzantine Empire never fell to the Turks.

Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia . . . longish novel set in a world where the Spanish Armada wasn't dispersed by a storm, and Spain conquered England in 1588, featuring Shakespeare, among others.

Kenneth Roberts, Pavane . . . set in an England where Protestantism never got the upper hand over Catholicism, and the Church suppressed the advancement of science, forestalling the industrial revolution. Except . . .

Stephen Baxter, Anti-Ice . . . world history takes a sharp left turn in the mid-1850s, when Britain figures out how to harness the title substance (brought to earth by a comet) and gains the functional equivalent of atomic power. Baxter doing a Verne/Wells style SF adventure in Victorian dress.

Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee . . . North America after the South wins the Civil War; a classic of the told-from-inside-the-alternate-timeline fiction . . .

Harry Turtledove, Guns of the South . . . time-travellers supply Robert E. Lee with automatic weapons, hoping to alter the outcome of the Civil War, but the really interesting bit is what happens *after* that plan runs its course . . .

Brendan du Bois, Resurrection Day . . . America in the early 1970s, a decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis went off the rails and a "limited" nuclear war between the superpowers followed . . .

Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove, The Two Georges and Harry Harrison, A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! . . . mystery/thriller-type novels set in the more-or-less present, but in a world where the American Revolution failed and the colonies never became fully independent . . .

May 19, 2014, 3:32pm Top

33> I will probably look for Resurrection Day...first I like post-apocalypse books but more important I read a review which said Canada helps out the USA after the limited Nuke fight .... I am Canadian, this would be a fantasy. Not that my country would not help out our neighbour to the south if-we-could...but the reality is that 90% of Canada's population especially back then lived 150 miles from the Canada/USA and similarly antimissile silos of the USA are within 200miles of the same border.

I was 14 years old during the Cuban Missile crisis...I lived in Winnipeg....we had air-raid drills, we made plans in the family as to where we would meet and get out of the city to a cottage in Northern Ontario if the unmentionable happened (a forlorn hope). A major battle ground in the event of such a event would have been over Canada...where do you think the nukes from Russia be intercepted? The reviewer said millions died of radiation poisoning in Asia from fallout from Russia...What about Canada? Nuke Detroit and nothing happens to Windsor and the rest of Southern Ontario?...Buffalo gets nuked and Toronto is ok? Fantasy not reality

Funny how millions would die in Asia but not in Canada....yep it would be a fantasy read as we had real fear during that crisis...Canada would have suffered just as much as the USA in that event

Jan 11, 2017, 11:53am Top

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Rwandese Flowers, by Adelson Costa.

Jan 11, 2017, 1:57pm Top

>21 annamorphic: I recently read The Plot Against America and agree it is a great novel. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Roth's American Pastoral. It's chilling to think how near to a potential reality the story is, (google Charles Lindbergh; much of his personal history and worldview matches how he is described in Roth's book).

>31 Lynxear: Under Heaven is a magnificent novel. The only GGK book I have read so far. I need to read more by him!

>33 ABVR: Pavane is on my TBR. I plan to read it this year. Reviewers seem to either love it or hate it. I hope to love it. ;)

A couple of others that I don't think have been mentioned are Cryptonomicon / The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson and Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman. Cryptonomicon and Elleander Morning both feature elements of WWII. The Baroque Cycle is a (humongous) set of prequels to Cryptonomicon dated between the mid-1650's to around 1725. Elleander Morning has elements of time travel and divergent realities with tenuous plot similarities to The Man in the High Castle - although the ending is not as... weird as PKD's novel.

Oh! Another book that might fit; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. It's another 'Kill Hitler to prevent WWII' book but the central conceit is rather unique.

Edited: Mar 3, 2017, 3:57pm Top

>26 aulsmith: Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors. I've compared reading his works to eating a rich chocolate cake: it is full of substance and you want to take your time to enjoy it. His historical fictions novels are top-notch. There is a little bit about the supernatural in them but not overwhelmingly so. I'll list what I've read for ease of following this thread.

Song for Arbonne set in Aquitaine-era France
Sailing to Byzantium "written" by a tile maker who is called to the royal palace (and sails to it) who looks at the world of tile as an art form.
The Lions of al-Rassan featuring many of the elements of Islamic medicine and a warrior-poet who hangs out with the bards

Other historical fiction I've liked:

Household Gods by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr takes a modern-day woman back to the times of the Roman empire. Quite good observations about life and what it took to stay alive.

>33 ABVR: Pavane was an amazing book. Kind of short stories that all have the theme of what would have happened if Queen Elizabeth had not lived through her reign? Each contains a different element of life and work of the time.

Boneshaker in Seattle where the Civil War is still going on in the 1890's and a cloud of poisonous gas has been let loose over the city. Kind of a steampunk romp as well.

What Might Have Been Vols. 1 & 2 was my introduction years ago to the idea of historical fiction. If you can find a copy of this set of short stories you'll find a great treat.

Mar 3, 2017, 4:21pm Top

#37 - I love a wide range of historical fiction and time travel novels, but Household Gods was spoiled for me by the extreme obnoxiousness of the main character.

Mar 6, 2017, 4:07pm Top

>38 john257hopper: Yes, she was a bit, um, loud in her opinions. I thought the way that the Roman world got shown to her as being so completely different from what she wanted was superb, such as her dislike for alcoholic beverages. The details of Roman life were fantastic, down to putting a coin in the mouth for safe-keeping.

Edited: Mar 6, 2017, 5:20pm Top

I'd recommend Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union where Israel doesn't exist and the Jews settled in a part of Alaska. Also KSR's The Years of Rice and Salt where the bubonic plague kills off 99% of the European population, China colonizes the West and the Industrial revolution starts in India.

Also Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History which is set in 15th century Burgundy and which, with it's astonishing plot twists, is difficult to categorize.

Mar 11, 2017, 10:49pm Top

>36 ScoLgo: I love this book but be forwarned it has a really bizarre narrative, and if you don't like time travel and time slip books, might not be for you. I do tho, and absolutely loved it (tho usually love all of her books)

Mar 11, 2017, 11:00pm Top

>37 threadnsong: also a fan of Gabriel Kay; I was first hooked by the Byzanntian books, then ate the rest of them up like candy. The last few were not up to his usual - I think he's repeating stories that he did before, and so not as exciting to read. Under Heaven was the last one I really liked; its based on a true story (in fact Court of the Lion is a HF that covers the same period and is one of my top ten HF books)

Apr 3, 2017, 9:03pm Top

>41 cindydavid4: To which book that I mentioned are you referring? I'm assuming it's Life After Life as that is the only one by a female author...? I did read that one and really enjoyed it.

Apr 4, 2017, 3:34am Top

>43 ScoLgo: Sorry for the confusion, it was indeed Life after Life. I was also responding to your comments about Gabriel Kay

Apr 16, 2017, 12:36pm Top

>42 cindydavid4: What did you think of Ysabel?

>31 Lynxear: >36 ScoLgo: I don't think I have Under Heaven anywhere on my shelves (virtual or otherwise). I'll have to rectify that situation. What is the storyline behind that book?

Edited: May 9, 2018, 3:32pm Top

My favourite Turtledove is "How Few Remain", the novel where Abe Lincoln lost the re-election, and the USa went on to become profoundly different...the rest of his "Southern Victory Saga" goes on from there. Aside from the "World War"series, this is his best work.

May 9, 2018, 7:38pm Top

>45 threadnsong: I loved Ysabel but tbh read it decades ago so don't remember much

re Under Heaven, the story is based on the fall of the Tang Dynasty of 5th century china. About how an Emperors obsession lead to his blindness of those around him, including a very strange general who was 'adopted' by the royal couple and actually staged a birth (this section is a true story). First heard about all this from the court of the lion, one of my all time favorite novels. Still does a good job telling the story in his usual style

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