All fiction books are some variation of “what if”. Sometimes it’s simply “what if these characters existed and what if they ended up in this situation”, and sometimes it’s “what if there was a whole other galaxy where aliens battled each other with lasers”. A very special subset of fiction books, though, imagine “what if” our own real history was slightly different. How would that affect our world, our present? Alternate history books are based in our reality, but they explore what could have been if certain historical events had gone differently, or historical figures had made different decisions, or some aspect of our history changed. Here are ten of my favourite alternate history books.
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is an alternate history book set in early 19th century England (think Napoleonic war era). In Clarke’s version, magic once ran rife through the British Isles, but has since disappeared entirely… only to suddenly return to two particular men, Jonathan Strange and (you guessed it!) Mr Norrell. Clarke offers a Tolkien-esque level of detail in her speculative history (though she’s far less dull than he was in the telling of it). She uses this slight tweak to our past to establish a stunning yet believable context for her magical story full of metaphor. Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
When most kids first hear about the Underground Railroad, they picture just that: train tracks that ran underground, and ferried slaves to safety during a truly abhorrent period of American history. Colson Whitehead is the first writer – as far as I know – to take that childish notion and turn it into literary fiction. The Underground Railroad is an alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. In Whitehead’s telling, the railroad is no metaphor: it has tracks, and stations, and conductors, and timetables, and the capacity to transport slaves into different realities. Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
The Eyre Affair takes a slightly different tack than other alternate history books – it’s quite meta, really. Instead of just reimagining our own reality-slash-history, Fforde also reimagines literary history, tearing up the well-trodden paths of classic books we know and love. Set in a version of Britain circa 1985, time travel is routine and literature is taken so seriously by citizens that “literary detective” is an actual job. That’s Thursday Next’s title, and she takes the case of the kidnapped characters. Someone plucks Jane Eyre out of Brontë’s beloved novel, and it’s going to be the challenge of Thursday’s career to get her back where she belongs.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory has written a number of historical romance novels about the Boleyns and Tudors, but The Other Boleyn Girl is surely the one for which she’s best known. It’s an alternative history-cum-historical romance, which posits that Henry VIII originally fell in love with then-14-year-old Mary Boleyn before famously divorcing his wife, and England from the Vatican, to marry her older sister Anne. There is some evidence that suggests something like this could have happened, but it’s unlikely – which is why Gregory has been pilloried by Tudor historians (as though we should be looking to romance novels for historical accuracy). Still, it’s a fun what-if that inspired a very sexy film. Read my full review of The Other Boleyn Girl here.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Hillary Rodham Clinton has one of the most famous (or infamous) marriages in the world. Everyone knows the story of Hillary and Bill, everyone has an opinion on his Oval Office misbehaviour, everyone remembers how Hillary finally ran for office herself and was bafflingly defeated by… well, you remember. But what if it was all different? What if Hillary had never married Bill? That’s the conceit of Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s alternate history novel. It’s shockingly intimate – even quite horny, at times – which is doubly uncomfortable when you remember that it’s an alternate history of real people who are still living. Read my full review of Rodham here.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
For some reason, the ’80s are a particularly popular time for alternate history books – here’s another, Machines Like Me. In Ian McEwan’s version of British history, Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power, and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. Against this backdrop, slacker Charlie buys one of the first “synthetic humans”, Adam… only to find himself caught in a love triangle between Adam and his long-time crush, Miranda. This is a particularly creepy read with advances in AI and programs like ChatGPT posing problems we’ve never had to grapple with (outside of fiction) before.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
To Paradise is one of the more complex alternate history novels (and we’d expect no less from Hanya Yanagihara). The story is set in New York City, across three alternative timelines: 1893, 1993, and 2093. Yes, that’s right, this is an alternate future, as well as an alternate past. The key difference between Yanagihara’s past and our own is that the “Free States” of the late-19th century permit same-sex marriage – while denying Black people citizenship. The ramifications of this tweak to history ripples over centuries, taking us further and further from our “real” present until it’s barely recognisable.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go seems, at first glance, like your standard dark academia novel. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are students at an idyllic (but creepy, for some reason) boarding school. Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t reveal to the reader that this is an alternate history book until about a hundred pages in – and yes, I’m about to spoil it, so look away now if you’ve miraculously never learned what this best-selling book is really about. The students, it turns out, are actually clones being farmed for their vital organs, a worst-case scenario that opponents to stem-cell and cloning research have been pointing to for decades. Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.
The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick
When it comes to sci-fi and speculative fiction, Philip K Dick is the big… well, you know. He also managed to write at least one pretty notable alternate history book, The Man In The High Castle. The concept is a bit obvious, but still intriguing: what if the U.S. and allies had lost WWII? In Dick’s version of that reality, it’s 1962, slavery is legal once again and the few remaining Jewish people live in hiding. It’s a chilling social commentary about a possible history that very nearly became our true past.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
When it comes to alternate history books, Life After Life is like a bonanza sale. You get dozens of alternate histories for the price of one! The stories follow Ursula, a girl born in 1910. In her first “life”, she dies strangled by her umbilical cord. Then, her life begins again – this time, she drowns as a child. On and on it goes, Ursula living over a dozen potential lives, each time slightly longer and changing the course of history as it unfolds before her. As she finally has the opportunity to age into adulthood, she begins to experience WWII from a number of different perspectives: the Blitz in London, life in a Nazi compound, volunteering as a rescuer… and eventually she discovers the power she has to change the outcome. Read my full review of Life After Life here.