11 Best Alternative History Books – Classic, Modern & Hidden Gems

Are you tired of reading the same historical fiction novels about events that actually happened? Do you want to dive into a world where things went differently? Look no further than alternative history. In this genre, authors explore the possibilities of events unfolding in other ways, creating worlds that are both familiar and strange. Here, we’ve compiled a list of the best alternative history books that are sure to leave you wanting more.

11 Best Alternative History Books - Classic, Modern & Hidden Gems

What is Alternative History?

Alternative History is a fascinating genre of fiction that explores the idea of what could have happened if history had taken a different course. It involves exploring alternate outcomes of real-life events and the use of fictional settings and characters to explore alternative timelines. This genre is an excellent way to explore the complexities of history and the many factors that shape our world.

Alternative history is not just about imagining what could have happened; it is also about exploring the consequences of those imagined events. It is about asking questions like, “What if the Nazis had won World War II?” or “What if the American Revolution had failed?” These questions can lead to thought-provoking and insightful explorations of the world we live in today.

Defining the Genre

The alternative history genre is characteristically challenging to define, as a wide variety of works classify as such due to the genre’s fluidity. Some works will be categorized as alternative history because they affect significant historical events, such as World War II. Others will qualify for imaginative fiction, not affecting history in any way. Works that are part of the subgenre steam punk, in which different technologies presented on the basis of alternative history, some of steam punk’s elements, are reasonably interesting.

Despite its fluidity, there are certain characteristics that are common to most alternative history works. For example, they often involve a significant departure from historical fact, such as the survival of a historical figure who died in real life or the victory of a losing side in a historical conflict. They also often explore the consequences of these departures, showing how they would have affected the course of history and the world we live in today.

Key Themes and Concepts in Alternative History

In alternative history literature, several themes and concepts often recur. For example, the butterfly effect is a common theme illustrated in different ways in many works of alternative history. The butterfly effect is the idea that small changes in the past can have significant consequences in the future. It is a fascinating concept that has been explored in many different ways in alternative history literature.

Another recurrent theme in alternative history literature is the concept of a ‘point-of-divergence.’ This is the moment in history where the alternate timeline diverges from the real historical timeline. It is often the event that sets in motion the chain of events that leads to the alternate outcome. This concept is essential in alternative history literature, as it allows the author to explore the consequences of a specific event or decision.

Overall, alternative history is a rich and exciting genre that offers a unique perspective on the world we live in today. By exploring alternate timelines and imagining different outcomes for historical events, alternative history authors can shed light on the complexities of history and the many factors that shape our world.

The Origins of Alternative History

The alternative history genre has its roots as far back as ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about fictitious versions of historical events to tell a different version of history.

Early Examples of the Genre

One of the earliest examples of alternative history literature is Theodorus Prodromus by Theodorus Prodromus, a Greek scholar who wrote a work of fiction where the Ottoman Empire won the Battle of Manzikert, a significant event in Byzantine history. Other notable works from this period include The Tale of the Heike, a reimagining of events from Japanese medieval history, where the story of the Heike clan’s defeat is retold to include supernatural elements.

The Evolution of Alternative History in Literature

Throughout the 20th century, alternative history literature became more popular with works such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which envisions a world in which Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II. Other notable works include Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which follows an alternate version of nineteenth-century England, where magic is real.

Top Alternative History Books: A Journey Through Fascinating Worlds

Alternative history is a genre that offers a unique perspective on the world we live in. It allows us to explore what could have been if certain events in history had taken a different turn. Here are some of the top alternative history books that you should definitely add to your reading list:

Classic Alternative History Novels

If you’re a fan of classic alternative history novels, then you’ll love these must-reads:

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis

The Alteration (New York Review Books Classics)

In this book, Amis imagines what the world would be like if the Reformation never occurred. The resulting world is a theocracy, where religious leaders hold all the power. The story follows the journey of a young boy who is destined to become a castrato, a fate that he desperately wants to escape.

You can find this book here.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel

In this book, Robinson explores an alternate world in which the black plague killed almost all of Europe’s population, shifting the focus of global power to China and the Islamic world. The story follows the journey of two men who are reincarnated throughout history, witnessing the rise and fall of civilizations and the impact of their choices on the world.

You can find this book here.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle

As previously mentioned, this book envisions a world where Japan and Germany won World War II and split the United States between them. The story follows the lives of several characters as they navigate this new world order and try to make sense of their place in it.

You can find this book here.

Contemporary Alternative History Must-Reads

If you’re looking for some contemporary alternative history novels, then these books are a must-read:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

In this book, Whitehead creates a world where the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad running beneath the Southern states and follows a slave’s journey to freedom. The story is a powerful exploration of the horrors of slavery and the resilience of the human spirit.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

The Plot Against America: A Novel

In this book, Roth creates an alternate version of America where Charles Lindbergh becomes President and forms an alliance with Nazi Germany. The story follows a Jewish family as they try to navigate this new political landscape and protect themselves from persecution.

You can find this book here.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel

In this book, a meteorite strikes Earth, leading to a climate change that could wipe out humanity. However, women who were previously excluded from the space program must push for their inclusion to save humanity. The story is a thrilling ride that explores the power of determination and the importance of diversity in shaping our future.

You can find this book here.

Hidden Gems in the Genre

If you’re looking for some hidden gems in the alternative history genre, then these books are definitely worth checking out:

The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust

The Book of Jhereg (Vlad Taltos Collections 1)

This book is a collection of short stories that follow Vlad Taltos, a human assassin in a world dominated by elves. While not strictly alternative history, the book has elements of it that make it a fascinating read.

You can find this book here.

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

The Iron Dream (Gateway Essentials Book 470)

This book within a book imagines a world in which Hitler becomes a science fiction author instead of a political figurehead. The story is a scathing critique of fascism and a powerful reminder of the dangers of extremism.

You can find this book here.

Shogun by James Clavell

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While Shogun may not strictly fall under the alternative history genre, Clavell’s tale of feudal Japan offers an interesting look at a time and place that many readers may not be familiar with. The story is a sweeping epic that explores the clash of cultures and the power of love and loyalty.

These books offer a fascinating glimpse into worlds that could have been. They challenge us to think about the choices we make and the impact they have on the world around us. So, pick up one of these books and immerse yourself in a world of possibilities!

Exploring Different Subgenres

Alternative History with a Sci-Fi Twist

Science fiction and alternative history often go hand in hand, with many authors imagining what the world would be like if specific scientific advancements had taken place earlier or later than they did.

For example, what if the ancient Greeks had developed the steam engine? Would they have been able to build an industrialized society thousands of years ahead of their time? Or what if the Egyptians had discovered electricity? Would they have been able to harness its power to build incredible machines and structures?

These questions and more are explored in alternative history with a sci-fi twist. By combining scientific speculation with historical events, authors can create fascinating and thought-provoking stories that challenge our understanding of the past and future.

Alternative History in Fantasy Settings

Grimdark Magazine

Fantasy and alternative history often intersect in the subgenre known as ‘historical fantasy.’ These books merge historical events with magical or fantastical elements, creating a wholly unique world.

One popular example of this subgenre is the ‘Grimdark‘ series by Joe Abercrombie. Set in a world reminiscent of medieval Europe, the series imagines a world where magic is real and powerful, and where the political landscape is shaped by powerful sorcerers and their armies.

Another example is the ‘Temeraire‘ series by Naomi Novik, which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as a major military force. In this world, dragons are bred and trained for war, and their riders are highly skilled soldiers who must navigate the complex politics of their time.

Historical Fiction Meets Alternative History


Historical fiction and alternative history may look similar at first glance, but they differ in that historical fiction stays true to known history. Alternative history, meanwhile, imagines entirely new events and outcomes.

One example of this subgenre is the novel ‘The Plot Against America‘ by Philip Roth. The book imagines a world where Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator and Nazi sympathizer, is elected President of the United States in 1940. The story follows a Jewish family in New Jersey as they navigate the increasingly hostile political climate of the country.

Another example is the ‘Dominion‘ series by C.J. Sansom, which imagines a world where Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940. The books follow a detective in an alternative version of 1950s London, where the government is controlled by the Nazis and resistance movements are brutally suppressed.

The Impact of Alternative History on Popular Culture

Alternative History in Film and Television

Alternative history has been the subject of many popular films and television shows, such as Inglourious Basterds, which imagines a world in which a team of Jewish soldiers kill Hitler.

The Influence of Alternative History on Video Games

Alternative history is a popular theme in video games, with franchises such as Wolfenstein and the alternate history mod for the game Hearts of Iron IV being particularly notable.

As you can see, the alternative history genre is varied and exciting, with something for everyone. Whether you’re a fan of traditional historical fiction or just looking for something a little different, there’s sure to be a book on this list that interests you.

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Eddison Monroe
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