This interesting sub-genre that intersects with both science fiction and fantasy, is a real favourite of mine. I’m a sucker for a well-constructed alternate history that posits some of the more fascinating ‘what ifs’. And these are the best ones I’ve encountered so far. Again, in no particular order…
Ghosts of Columbia by L.E. Modesitt Jr
This nifty omnibus edition contains the first two books in the series – Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator. This is a world where people who are killed violently or accidentally with sufficient time to realise that they are about to die, become ghosts. So large battles become undesirable – battlefields overrun with hordes of ghosts make an area uninhabitable until they fade. The point at which history has also diverged is when the colonists from the Mayflower landing in the New World succumb to the plague, denying England any foothold on the American continent. Which means a chunk of Canada and North America is settled by the Dutch, in a nation called Columbia with New France down in the south and the Mormon state of Deseret jostling in an uneasy truce. For the time being…
Drop into this interestingly original world, ex-espionage agent and political minister Johan Eschbach, now living quietly in New Bruges and working as a lecturer on Environmental Studies at the Vanderaak Centre who tells his story in first person POV.
The story and espionage are well constructed – but what sticks in my memory is this wonderful world Modesitt has created. I love the details he produces about the weather, Johan’s shopping habits and what he has for breakfast – so that when it does all kick off, the violence is all the more shocking. Read my full review here.
Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…
As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.
But that sense of order being re-established is entirely false – as we get to discover in the two ensuing books… This is a storming start to an excellent trilogy by one of the most versatile, interesting speculative fiction writers around today. Read my full review here.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy and science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…
When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out. Mr Dunsworthy – who opposed the whole hare-brained notion of Kivrin going back to this particular time, yet somehow found himself caught up in helping her – is an outstanding character. The book is largely in his and Kivrin’s viewpoint and as the situation in both timelines slides away into chaos, it is these two main characters on whom the whole story arc rests.
Willis lays bare the internecine struggles within the famous University with a sense of gentleness that is refreshing in a genre which often exposes human frailty with ruthless savagery. There are a couple of characters who resort to petty rule-hugging in order to protect themselves, but most of the people depicted step up and do their best in increasingly awful circumstances. Read my full review here.
Age of Aztec – Book 4 of the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
The date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec reign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador. Mal Vaughan, one of the Jaguar Warriors, who police affairs in London, is determined to track down and put a stop to the Conquistador – a determination honed by the knowledge that if she doesn’t deliver, her life will be forfeit…
We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable. Read my full review here.
Dominion by C.J. Sansom
Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.
What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading. In this Britain there has been a prolonged period of financial stagnation, leading to widespread poverty without any Welfare State. This is a world where the BBC is strictly censored with newspapers, television and radio staying silent when violent protest spills into death – and morris dancing is upheld as a national dance… But perhaps the most startling demonstration of the difference is when young Queen Elizabeth – still unmarried – is commemorating Remembrance Sunday, with Rommel stepping forward and propping on the cenotaph a large poppy wreath, complete with a swastika.
This is a strong read for anyone interested in exploring alternative historical landscapes and Sansom has beautifully conveyed the fog-shrouded desperation of a country slowly grinding to a halt under a punitive rule. Read my review here.