Each month, we’re focusing on a particular genre or subgenre, discussing its definition, appeal factors, and a few recent and forthcoming titles that fall within it. All of our genre guides can be found at our genre fiction tag. This month, we tackle alternate history.
Definition & Overview
Alternate history is a subgenre of science fiction. But: a lot of readers think defining alternate history as science fiction is problematic, since alternate history doesn’t really have to involve science at all. A more accurate definition (or at least a definition that causes fewer arguments!) may be to call it a subgenre of speculative fiction, which is a large, umbrella term that encompasses all of science fiction, fantasy, and related categories. Speculative fiction really gets to the root of what alternate history is, in my mind: speculation about what if.
Alternate history in particular asks us to consider what our world would be like if something happened differently in the past. This different event is called the point of divergence. Some common points of divergence that writers come back to over and over again include: the Americans losing the Revolutionary War, the Germans winning World War II, the South winning the Civil War (or any differing outcome in a large military conflict, really), JFK or Lincoln not being assassinated, and so on. Usually the books focus on an event that most people are familiar with, but not always. Sometimes the plot revolves around something else entirely, and the point of divergence is merely backdrop.
Alternate history has been fairly popular among adult audiences for quite some time. Harry Turtledove, who wrote Guns of the South (among many, many others), is possibly the most well-known alternate history novelist for adults. Others the average reader may recognize are Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker series, Jo Walton’s Small Change series, and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series.
There are fewer examples in YA, but they exist. Often they’re crossovers with other subgenres, usually steampunk, time travel, or stories about parallel universes. Often characters start out in our own world and travel back in time to change history or find a portal to a parallel universe where things are different. And of course, steampunk is a huge source for alternate history – it’s possible to make an argument that steampunk is by definition alternate history. Other crossovers are possible, too, such as a crossover with fantasy where the introduction of magic at a certain point in time alters history in some way.
Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a classic example of children’s alternate history, though I know when I first read it as a child, I had no idea it belonged in that subgenre. It’s set in 1830s England ruled by a Stuart King by the name of James III. This is a prime example of a book where knowing the history isn’t essential, but it certainly deepens the reader’s enjoyment.
My favorite book series of all time, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, can also be called alternate history after a fashion. The first book is set in a parallel universe to ours, where the religion of England developed much differently than it did in our own world, making a big impact upon society. Parallel universes are a great way to incorporate alternate history, usually causing the reader to consider alternate events in direct contrast to how those events actually played out.
Alternate history appeals to history buffs, of course, but also to those readers who just love to ask “what if?” They’re a natural draw for SFF fans who love world-building and can generate a lot of intense fan discussion.
(Note: Alternate history is not historical fiction that simply introduces a fictional character. That’s not enough. In order for the story to be alternate history, it has to change an event, and that change has to have an effect on the course of events afterward.)
- Uchronia is an impressively huge bibliography of alternate history titles, including novels, short stories, and essays. Unfortunately, while they include children’s and YA titles, they don’t have a way to search for those specifically (and a number of titles from my list below are not there at all). You can browse by author, language, series, and divergence. It’s a fun discovery tool for fans, but perhaps not terrific for someone looking for books just for younger readers – unless they already know a title or author.
- On the Uchronia page, you’ll also find a link to the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History.
These are usually presented at the World Science Fiction Convention each year. While children’s and YA titles are considered (you’ll find that Nation by Terry Pratchett was shortlisted in 2008), the vast majority of winners and honorees are adult titles.
- Liz Burns’ Alternate History post from 2010 gives a good overview of the subgenre.
- Chasing Ray has a roundup of blog posts and good reads from across the web about steampunk and alternate history. She hosted a celebration of the subgenre(s) in 2010 (Liz’s post is included), and there are tons of great resources here.
- This Day in Alternate History may not be terribly useful to you in your day job, but it’s fun to play around with.
Because this subgenre is much smaller than others we’ve covered, the list below goes back about ten years. I’m hoping to discover more young adult books that fit this category – hit me with ’em if you’ve got ’em. Synopses are from Worldcat. In addition to the usual listing of sequels and links to reviews, I’ve also included some information about the particular divergence in history that the novel addresses.
White Cat by Holly Black
When Cassel Sharpe discovers that his older brothers have used him to
carry out their criminal schemes and then stolen his memories, he
figures out a way to turn their evil machinations against them.
Divergence: Magic exists and was banned in 1929, much like alcohol was banned in 1919, contributing to the rise of organized crime in the United States. | Sequels: Red Glove, Black Heart | Kimberly’s Reviews: White Cat, Red Glove, Black Heart
The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood
In 1777, having been kidnapped and taken forcibly from England to the
American colonies, fifteen-year-old Creighton becomes part of
developments in the political unrest there that may spell defeat for the
patriots and change the course of history.
Divergence: The British win the American Revolutionary War in 1776.
The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Britain’s industrial empire, sixteen-year-old Charlotte and her fellow
refugees’ struggle to survive is interrupted by a newcomer with no
memory, bearing secrets about a terrible future.
The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson (sequel: Invisible Things)
and her great-aunt Tabitha are caught up in a murder mystery involving
terrorists and suicide-bombers whose plans have world-shaping
Plus One by Elizabeth Fama
In an alternate United States where Day and Night populations are forced
to lead separate–but not equal–lives, a desperate Night girl falls
for a seemingly privileged Day boy and places them both in danger as she
gets caught up in the beginnings of a resistance movement.
Divergence: The Spanish Flu epidemic of the early 20th century causes the US population to be divided into two different groups who are only allowed out during the day or the night. | Kimberly’s Review: Plus One
The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
In an alternate 1950s, mechanically gifted fifteen-year-old Aoife
Grayson, whose family has a history of going mad at sixteen, must leave
the totalitarian city of Lovecraft and venture into the world of magic
to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance and the mysteries
surrounding her father and the Land of Thorn.
Divergence: Instead of nuclear power, magic was discovered (invented?). It’s now seen as a threat by President McCarthy and his government. (I got this info from Tamora Pierce’s review of the title, as I gave up on the book partway through.) | Sequels: The Nightmare Garden, The Mirrored Shard
Neverwas by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed
At her family’s Maryland home, in a world where colonists lost the 1776
Insurrection, Sarah Parsons and her friend Jackson share visions of a
different existence and, having remembered how things ought to be, plan a
daring mission to set them right.
Divergence: The British win the American Revolutionary War in 1776. | Sequel: Neverwas is actually a sequel to Amber House, but Amber House doesn’t focus much on alternate history (at least judging from the synopsis).
Nation by Terry Pratchett
After a devastating tsunami destroys all that they have ever known, Mau,
an island boy, and Daphne, an aristocratic English girl, together with a
small band of refugees, set about rebuilding their community and all
the things that are important in their lives.
Divergence: In the 1860s, a strain of Russian flu kills the English king and the next 138 heirs.
Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
and controls society, sixteen-year-old Cate Cahill has struggled since
her mother’s death to keep secret that she and her younger sisters are
witches, but when a governess arrives from the Sisterhood, everything
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
In an alternate 1914 Europe, fifteen-year-old Austrian Prince Alek, on
the run from the Clanker Powers who are attempting to take over the
globe using mechanical machinery, forms an uneasy alliance with Deryn
who, disguised as a boy to join the British Air Service, is learning to
fly genetically engineered beasts.
Divergence: World War I is fought by countries with special weapons never seen before: the Austro-Hungarians and Germans have automated machines called Clankers and the English have developed genetically engineered animals. | Sequels: Behemoth, Goliath
Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce
Fourteen-year-old Flora Fyrdraaca, whose mother is the Warlord’s
Commanding General and whose father is mad, kindly helps her house’s
magical–and long-banished–butler, unaware that he draws strength from
the Fyrdraaca will.
Divergence: Wilce herself has said that Califa is not based on any one place, but readers say it reads like a version of California that has been conquered by an Aztec-like culture. | Sequels: Flora’s Dare, Flora’s Fury
The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond
It’s been nearly 80
years since the Allies lost WWII in a crushing defeat against Hitler’s
genetically engineered super soldiers. America has been carved up by the
victors, and 16-year-old Zara lives a life of oppression in the Eastern
America Territories. A revolution is
growing, and a rogue rebel group is plotting a deadly coup. Zara might
hold the key to taking down the Führer for good, but it also might be
the very thing that destroys her. (Goodreads synopsis; title forthcoming in September 2014)
Divergence: Hitler/Germany wins World War II.