What if Europeans never came to America? What if Germany won World War II? What if there were magicians during the Napoleonic War? Or zombies during the U.S. Civil War? These are the kinds of tantalizing questions that alternate history books explore. Set in our world, but not quite, these books give us a way to look at our past—and sometimes our present—with fresh eyes.
The book and book series listed below are just a few examples of the many creative explorations of history that are out there. Some are set in the real world, but in a version where a past event turned out differently. And some introduce a fantasy element and consider how history would be different if those fantasies were real. But all of them hinge on the question, “What if…?”
Reality-Based Alternate History Books
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Black Plague devastated the population of Europe. But what if it had been worse? This novel imagines centuries of history in a world where 99 percent of Europeans died, leaving Muslim and Chinese cultures in control of the world.
Ruled Brittania by Harry Turtledove
Set in a version of 1597 in which King Philip of Spain rules Britain, this novel tells what happen when William Shakespeare is given a chance to write something political for a change, something that might rouse his people to rise up in support of their imprisoned queen and against the Inquisition that oppresses them.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
This steampunk novel presents an alternate history in which a group of British philanthropists buy up land in Africa to create Everfair, a safe haven for Africans fleeing King Leopold’s rule in the Congo and formerly-enslaved people who were able to return from America. The book chronicles the history of this new society.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Many, many alternate history ask how the world would be different if Germany had won World War II. And The Man in the High Castle is among the most well-known books that tackle that question. Set in a version of America that is ruled by Japan and Germany, with a neutral zone in between, this book is gets a little loopy, but it’s a classic of the genre.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
As spokesman for the “America First” committee, Charles Lindbergh spoke out forcefully against American intervention in World War II, and some believe that he was actually sympathetic to the Nazis. This book considers what would have happened if he’d defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.
The first novel, Farthing, is set in 1949, in a version of England that made peace with Hitler instead of continuing the war. The novel begins with a murder, and most of it reads like a straightforward mystery. The subsequent novels, Ha’Penny and Half a Crown, follow Inspector Carmichael, the detective who investigated the Farthing murder, as he watches England plunge further into darkness.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon presents a different take on life after World War II as he imagines a Jewish district established in Sitka, Alaska, when the newly-established state of Israel fell. Sixty years later, the district is supposed to revert back to the Alaskans.
Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
This YA series, which begins with Naughts and Crosses, is set in a 21st-century version of Great Britain in which, centuries earlier, Africans enslaved Europeans. Now, slavery has been abolished but segregation remains and racial mixing is forbidden.
Fantasy-Based Alternate History Books
Spiritwalker Series by Kate Elliott
Beginning with Cold Magic, this steampunk series is set in a version of the 19th century in which the Ice Age never ended, changing the balance of power across the globe. Mages and spirits and dragons also exist in this version of our world.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
When magic returns to England during the Napoleonic wars, two magicians rise to power, and their actions change the course of history. Susanna Clarke not only presents an alternate version of history in which magic is real, she writes in the style of the 19th century and presents a complete world (with footnotes!).
Temeraire Series by Naomi Novick
It’s the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons! Beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon, this seven-volume series initially sticks close to actual history, except that there are dragons, but gradually the dragon present creates power shifts that differ from what really happened.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad that could take enslaved people to freedom. Cora and Caesar board the underground train in Georgia and make stops at various points in the South where they encounter other forms of oppression that existed at different points in American history.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
In this version of American history, the Civil War is disrupted by the rise of zombies. Slavery as we understand it ends, but young Black and Native Americans are recruited to fight the zombies and protect wealthy whites.
Making History by Stephen Fry
This novel has a physicist and a historian teaming up to use a time machine to prevent the birth of Hitler. In doing so, they create their own alternate history in which there’s no Hitler, but anti-Semitism and fascism don’t disappear.
Beginning with The Lives of Tao, this series imagines that aliens landed on Earth thousands of years ago and have been enacting their own civil war by taking over human bodies. This time, one of the aliens takes over the body of an out-of-shape IT pro who must now become a spy.
What other alternate history books would you add to this list?