The beautiful thing about writing alternate history and historical fantasy, in my opinion, is that history itself offers enough crazy, nigh-implausible stuff to do half the job for you. Yet when I wrote my Daedalus trilogy, I kind of felt the weight of that history on my shoulders, even as I played with it, because I felt I had to do it justice. I took the Napoleonic Era naval fiction of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian as a starting point, then transported it into a setting of alchemy-fueled space opera: my Venus has lizard-aliens, my Napoleon has a zombie army. It’s high adventure on the scale of both history and the Solar System.
But it still has to work. Writing any sort of alternate history or historical fantasy is tough, because without a solid foundation of logical extrapolation—chasing down the what-ifs of the changes you’ve made to history—it folds like a house of cards. I’d like to think mine holds up well, but it’s a balancing act, to be sure.
Here’s five books set in five different eras that, I think, make history both fantastical and fantastic to read, plus a few extra books thrown in because they’re worth it.
His Majesty’s Dragon—Naomi Novik
When you think of historical fantasy in the Napoleonic Era, this is the book you think of. Novik introduced a single element—dragons—into the setting, then extrapolated brilliantly into what it would mean for the nations of Europe to use them in battle during Napoleon’s wars. Strong characterization and nifty action make it a fun ride, too.
Also worth it: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke. Same era, less war, more magic and faeries, no dragons. Clarke’s voice nails the period so well.
Bitter Seeds—Ian Tregillis
Superpowered agents with pulp-fiction technology and British warlocks wage a secret war across Europe during World War II and the Cold War—and then things get even stranger after that. Yet despite all the moving parts, Tregillis runs with it well. Much of the success has to do with Reybould Marsh, his everyman-spy at the center of the chaos.
Also worth it: Fatherland by Robert Harris was one of my very first straight-up alt-history reads. (In other words, no magic.) Excellent crime thriller set in Nazi-dominated Europe in 1964.
Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron—Kim Newman
I first heard about this book while prepping for a World Fantasy Convention panel on WWI alt-history. And it’s a heck of a ride, positing Dracula’s rise to lead the armies of Germany and Austria during the Great War—and the Red Baron as particularly bloody indeed. The rest of the series, set in other eras, is a fascinating take on both history and an iconic literary character.
Also worth it: The Mechanical by Tregilis (again!) is set a few years after WWI, but is a great, fresh hack at clockwork-punk.
I didn’t really know how much I loved the Weird West until I read Cherie’s book. It boasts a rich setting featuring Western steampunk mixed with zombie horror, and yet it’s still a great tale about a mother looking for her son. The series goes on to expand the setting in creative and unique ways. Just a lot of fun.
Also (likely) worth it: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer. Full disclosure, I haven’t read this yet, but the reviews have been staggeringly good for this debut novel about a professional psychopomp in the Weird West.
The Guns of the South—Harry Turtledove
You can’t do a list like this without Harry—he’s the alt-history master. And this is the book he’s arguably best known for—one in which a time traveler supplies struggling Confederate General Robert E. Lee with AK-47s and helps turn the tide of the Civil War. Turtledove’s work is richly detailed and intricately plotted as he takes history down some of the most fantastic tangents imaginable.
Also worth it: Turtledove’s 11-book Southern Victory series, which starts with How Few Remain in an alternate Civil War, and ends with In at the Death in a very different World War II. It’s a huge series, but worth the trip.
Michael J. Martinez is a writer of genre-bending speculative fiction and the occasional bit of short fiction. His latest book, The Venusian Gambit (May 5), “seamlessly blends popular elements from science fiction and fantasy, producing a work that raises the bar for both,” according to Publishers Weekly’s starred review. He’s also an avid traveler and homebrewer. You can find Mike at his blog, on Twitter and on Untappd.