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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

By Michael Chabon

Book cover of The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Why 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.

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The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Why 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.

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Naughts & Crosses

By Malorie Blackman

Book cover of Naughts & Crosses

Why 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?

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His Majesty's Dragon: Book One of the Temeraire

By Naomi Novik

Book cover of His Majesty's Dragon: Book One of the Temeraire

Why 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!

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Terra Nullius

By Claire G. Coleman

Book cover of Terra Nullius

Why 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!). 

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