The best alternative histories that you really wish had happened

Craig Cormick Author Of On a Barbarous Coast: What If There Was an Alternative Ending to Captain Cook's Story?
By Craig Cormick

Who am I?

I am an Australian author and I love messing with history – just about as much as history seems to love messing with me! I am fascinated by the different paths that history could have taken and those single moments upon which history often turns. I am also passionately interested in telling the histories of the First Nations people, whose stories have often been left out of many histories. As a result, I partnered with Indigenous author Harold Ludwick to write this book – not just providing an alternate history of early Australia, but telling it in both blackfellah and whitefellah voices. 

I wrote...

On a Barbarous Coast: What If There Was an Alternative Ending to Captain Cook's Story?

By Craig Cormick, Harold Ludwick,

Book cover of On a Barbarous Coast: What If There Was an Alternative Ending to Captain Cook's Story?

What is my book about?

On a night of raging winds and rain, Captain Cook's Endeavour lies splintered on a coral reef off the coast of far north Australia. A small disparate band of survivors, fracturing already, huddle on the shore of this strange land - their pitiful salvage scant protection from the dangers of the unknown creatures and natives that live here.

Watching these mysterious white beings, the Guugu Yimidhirr people cannot decide if they are ancestor spirits to be welcomed - or hostile spirits to be speared. One headstrong young boy, Garrgiil, determines to do more than watch and to be the one to find out what exactly they are. Our book tells an alternating whitefellah/blackfellah narrative of what might have been Australia’s first settlement history. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Why did I love this book?

In putting together this list I determined not to include any books where the Nazis win World War Two and not to include any series that last ridiculously long. We’ll see if I can keep to that. This book is brilliant. Playful. Fun. And Serious. Imagine that the Jewish homeland had not been established in Israel, after World War Two, but in a part of Alaska. Then throw in a detective story based around a murder. And mobsters. And intrigue. And plenty of plot twists. And the lease on this Jewish homeland running out. And maybe even a messiah figure. It is a tremendous read and you finish it wishing this was a place you really could visit.

By Michael Chabon,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Yiddish Policemen's Union as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The brilliantly original new novel from Michael Chabon, author of THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY and WONDER BOYS.

What if, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed, Alaska - and not Israel - had become the homeland for the Jews after the Second World War? In Michael Chabon's Yiddish-speaking 'Alyeska', Orthodox gangs in side-curls and knee breeches roam the streets of Sitka, where Detective Meyer Landsman discovers the corpse of a heroin-addled chess prodigy in the flophouse Meyer calls home. Marionette strings stretch back to the hands of charismatic Rebbe Gold, leader of a sect that seems to have drawn its…

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead,

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Why did I love this book?

I seriously found the idea behind this book intriguing and kept wondering if the author could maintain it. The idea is that the underground railway that helped slaves escape the southern states of the USA was an actual railroad that had been built underground. The book so closely integrates this into actual history that it is never the predominant idea – which is more about the complexity of those who helped slaves escape, those who tracked them, and of course the slaves seeking freedom themselves. As a result, it does maintain the idea well.

By Colson Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Underground Railroad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime' Guardian

'Luminous, furious, wildly inventive' Observer

'Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year' Stylist

'Dazzling' New York Review of Books

Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the…

Naughts & Crosses

By Malorie Blackman,

Book cover of Naughts & Crosses

Why did I love this book?

This book is a stunner because unlike most alternative histories it has a contemporary setting, imagining a modern British society where Africans have colonised the country and are the dominant racial group and the ‘noughts’ – or white native Britains, are the colonised. The book turns apartheid and colonisation on their heads in a very challenging way. And it’s also a love story between Callum who is a naught, and Sephy who is a Cross – an extreme Romeo and Juliet. And seriously, who doesn’t love a good Romeo and Juliet story, yeah?

By Malorie Blackman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Naughts & Crosses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two star-crossed lovers fight for a more just world in this searing novel with a critically-acclaimed BBC series adaptation now streaming on NBCUniversal’s Peacock platform!

Sephy is a Cross: dark-skinned and beautiful, she lives a life of privilege and power. But she’s lonely, and she burns with injustice at the world she sees around her.

Callum is a nought: pale-skinned and poor, he’s considered to be less than nothing, there to serve Crosses, but he dreams of a better life.

They’ve been friends since they were children, and they both know that’s as far as it can ever go. Noughts…

His Majesty's Dragon

By Naomi Novik,

Book cover of His Majesty's Dragon

Why did I love this book?

This is the first in a series of seven books set during the Napoleonic wars – with dragons (yeah, I know I said I wasn’t going to cover any series that go on too long – but the book does stand alone). The book covers the Napoleonic War very closely and its history is very solid – with the one exception being that both sides have dragons that they use in their battles. The story follows one British officer Captain Will Laurence, and his individual dragon, Temeraire, found as an egg on a captured French ship. And I mean, just imagine all of Napoleon’s great battles with the addition of fire-breathing dragons added to them! That’s a history that wouldn’t have you falling asleep in school!

By Naomi Novik,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked His Majesty's Dragon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Naomi Novik's stunning series of novels follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire as they are thrown together to fight for Britain during the turbulent time of the Napoleonic Wars.

As Napoleon's tenacious infantry rampages across Europe and his armada lies in wait for Nelson's smaller fleet, the war does not rage on land and water alone. Squadrons of aviators swarm the skies - a deadly shield for the cumbersome canon-firing vessels. Raining fire and acid upon their enemies, they engage in a swift, violent combat with flying tooth and claw... for these aviators ride…

Terra Nullius

By Claire G. Coleman,

Book cover of Terra Nullius

Why did I love this book?

This is a really tricky book to write about without giving away too many of the surprises in the plot – as for much of the book you don’t even realise that you are reading an alternate history. I was convinced I was reading about the violence of colonisation in early Western Australia – until the moment I discovered that I wasn’t. Claire G. Coleman is an indigenous writer which adds a particular strength to this amazing and surprising story (sorry, no spoilers allowed!). 

By Claire G. Coleman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Terra Nullius as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NPR Best Books of 2018

“Coleman’s timely debut is testimony to the power of an old story seen afresh through new eyes.” —Adelaide Advertiser

“In our politically tumultuous time, the novel’s themes of racism, inherent humanity and freedom are particularly poignant.” —Books + Publishing

The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart. Reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.

This is not the Australia we know. This is not the Australia of the history books. Terra Nullius…

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