Alternate history is a subset of the science fiction genre where speculative authors alter historical events that create stories in occasionally vastly different worlds. Anyone familiar with the alternate history genre has read their fair share of "what if the Axis powers had won World War II?" or "What if the South won the Civil War?" However, the genre is so much more than the alternate history of those two events. Some authors have taken the possibilities that this genre provides and ran crazy with them, creating some of the most imaginative stories that most will ever read.

Unfortunately, the alternate history genre is among one of the hardest science fiction subsets to write well, right up there with time travel. It is difficult to sort out what events would happen after the incident and what would not, so some stories just turn out trying to be feasible but failing. Although not all alternate history novels go for the believable, which often makes for the best tales. For those that want to go further into the realm of this genre, but don't know where to start, here are some awesome alternate history books to start with.

alternate history
Darwinia: A Novel of a Very Different Twentieth Century
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(price as of Aug 19, 2014)
Darwinia, the 1998 Prix Award-winning novel by Robert Charles Wilson, asks the question what would happen if a chunk of earth disappeared and was replaced by a new continent. A place that followed completely different lines of evolution compared to our world. This "miracle" event took place in 1912 and changed the course of history as we know it. Years after the event, the reader explores this new world and its secrets through the eyes of Gilford Law, an American photographer that joined up with an expedition to the new land of Darwinia. As Law leaves America, which has since become a fundamentalist nation, he travels into a nightmarish jungle filled with monsters from myth and antiquity. Gilford Law's journey eventually leads to revelations about mankind and its destiny in the universe.

Aside from being an enthralling tale in its story alone, Darwinia is a literary exploration for all those explorers out there that believe the world has no secrets left to discover. This novel paints a new, vivid and believably picture of this new land to satisfy any reader's curious nature.
The Peshawar Lancers
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In S.M. Sterling's The Peshawar Lancers a meteor shower in 1878 caused a massive dust cloud to rise up and block out the sun. This event caused much of earth to fall into an eternal winter. The novel focuses on the British Empire who, under the helm of Queen Victoria, were evacuated south into their colonies in India. The British Isles were left in the unpleasant hands of cannibalistic savages. However, the novel does not focus on the immediate repercussions, but rather jumps ahead to the year 2025. The dust cloud is starting to clear and Earth is beginning to stabilize again. The Peshawar Lancers guard the northern borders of the British Empire, which has been renamed the Angrezi Raj. This empire is at constant odds with the other major power in the world in Russia. Everyone is sure that war will erupt, but not sure as to when. The tale follows the tale of Captain Athelstane King of the Peshawar Lancers that plays reluctant spy and British hero.

The Peshawar Lancers focuses on a world that, instead of advancing technology, had to piece itself back together. It is a world in the future where people still rely on steamboats and deliver messages by telegraph. However, the novel details the ravages of such a catastrophic event and proves that even on the brink of destruction, humanity just can't get along.
The Aquiliad, Book I : Aquilla in the New World
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In a play on words with The Iliad, The Aquiliad by S.P. Somtow explores a world where the Roman Empire never fell. Under their vast military power, they took over most of the world including the Americas which they named Terra Novo. However, portions of the world remain out of the grasp of the Roman Empire. In an effort to get their grasp on the fabled land of China, General Titus Papinianus, governor of Terra Novo, and Senator Aquila, who is also a Chief of the Lacoti clan, set off on an expedition across Terra Novo to find it. On their journey, this odd couple has to deal with the challenges of this still savage land including bloodthirsty Aztecs, Bigfoot, and time travelling aliens. Their situation only gets more difficult when they fall captive to the mysterious Time Criminal that seeks to alter all the modern universes to suit his own malicious desires.

Time travel and alternate history, two challenging features that even the best authors would have trouble with. However, S.P. Somtow pulls it off gloriously, likely because he delicately skated over many of the finer details involved with time travel. However, for those that aren't interested in the technical details, this is one monster of a story, one that lives up to the likes of The Iliad itself.
His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, Book 1)
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Sick of waiting for the dragons to do something in A Song of Ice and Fire? Well His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik takes dragons and places them right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. The intelligent creatures are used in aerial warfare throughout Europe and Asia making this exciting time in history that much more amazing. The book still features all the heroism, adventure and intrigue that history buffs love about the period as well as many of the same battles from the time period, but with a mythical twist that could easily turn the tides.

The story of His Majesty's Dragon follows the tale of Captain Will Laurence whose seafaring life changes once the HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and the cargo inside, an unhatched dragon egg. Laurence forms an unexpected kinship with the dragon and suddenly finds himself among the Aerial Corps alongside his dragon Temeraire. As they face Bonaparte's most bold maneuver onto British soil, he must face his own baptism of fire and master daring airborne tactics.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel (P.S.)
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Part alternate history and part hardboiled detective novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon tells the tale of the Jewish refuge state after the wake of the Holocaust. However, this state is not in Israel, which fell to the Nazis after three months into its fledgling existence, but rather in Sitka, Alaska. It is described as a place that "moves to the music of Yiddish" on the Alaskan panhandle. After years of peace and prosperity, the district is about to revert back to Alaskan control and their dream is coming to an end.

Inside this world, homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has hands full with matters aside from the Reversion. His marriage and career are both in shambles, but to make matters worse someone has just committed a murder right under his nose at a seedy hotel he washed up in during a drunken stupor. Landsman launches an investigation with the help of his chess prodigy neighbor when word comes down from above that he needs to drop it. However, like any good detective, he needs to know the truth.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a gripping whodunit, an exploration of exile and redemption and a decent love story. However, above all else, it is hilarious. Readers don't need to be a member of the Twelve Tribes to appreciate Carbon's creative use of the Yiddish language.
Lest Darkness Fall & Related Stories
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Written in 1939, Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp is one of the most influential examples of alternate history in the science fiction genre. It is considered to be the novel that shaped all future novels to come in the genre.

Lest Darkness Fall focuses on the story of American archeologist Martin Padway who visits the Pantheon in Rome during 1938. However, after a sudden thunderstorm, he finds himself in Rome circa 525 AD. Of course, he wonders if this is all a dream, but eventually resigns himself to his new life. He decides to make a copper still to make and sell brandy to the old world, convincing a banker to fund his venture. Eventually, he makes his way into the communications industry where he develops a printing press and eventually builds a telegraph system. However, when Italy is invaded with Imperials and is threatened by other internal forces, Padway inserts himself into Italian politics, utilizing military strategy never before seen in the ancient world. Through his influence and intelligence, he stabilizes the region and sees that Europe never enters the Dark Ages.

Sadly, the story was never expanded upon, but is an amazing and intelligent look at the time period. The best part is even though the book was written in the 1930's, the characters aren't horrible stereotypes. In fact, it has some of the best women characters I have ever read.
Lion's Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America
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In Steven Barnes' novel Lion's Blood, Islamic Africa is the dominating power of the world. Europe is considered savage and Africans have colonized the Americas using white slaves. The novel is set in the 19th century and follows the young Aidan O'Dere, an Irish boy whose village is attacked by Viking raiders. Although his mother, twin sister and himself survived, they are taken captive and sold to African slave merchants and shipped to North America. The family finds themselves sold to the aristocratic Wakil Abu Ali family and they are forced to work the land of their Dar Kush estate.

This alternate history book explores different cultures that are often looked over in the modern world. Of course, all this while exploring the horrors of slavery and its effect on people. It does an excellent job showing how the horrors one people inflict on another shape their culture.
Wild Cards I
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Among George R.R. Martin's numerous side projects aside from A Song of Ice and Fire series is the Wild Card Series. He has contributed a number of edits and stories to the alternate history superhero anthology alongside writers like Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, John J. Miller and many others.

In Wild Cards, an alien virus was released in New York City shortly after the end of World War II. Those who survived it mutated into either creatures called Jokers or superheroes called Aces. The number of short stories and novels in this series feature historical figures and expand on this vibrant world. They have featured Mick Jagger as a lycanthropic ace, Fidel Castro as a baseball player in New York, and had Buddy Holly not die in a plane crash. In that way, it is not always all about aces fighting jokers, but also shows a world where the timeline of traditional events are skewed and history can be written anew by this talented group of authors.

Unfortunately, there is so much content in the Wild Card universe between short stories and novels, it can be a bit difficult to know what order to read it in.
The Years of Rice and Salt
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The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson raises the question of what if 99% of the population was killed by the Black Plague instead of only one-third. The story covers an impressive 700 year long timeline which spans the Muslim conquest of Timur to the 21st century. The story showcases China and the Dar-al-Islam (the conglomeration of Muslim nations) as the dominant powers, with the Indian League and the Confederation of Hodenosaunee (Native Americans) fighting against Chinese and Muslim invaders. The novel actually takes place in several different places at different times. The characters are reincarnated into each time period, but after their deaths reunite in limbo. Some call that being lazy in creative writing, others call it a quick and easy way to tie the characters together without drawing it out.

Regardless, the novel is all about the exploration of the time period. The story is a fast way to showcase not only the new historical timeline, but also the historical, religious and social themes that the book presents.
1632 (Ring of Fire)
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Instead of picking a point in history, causing some diversion and then detailing the repercussions, in Eric Flints' novel 1632 he takes a West Virginian town from the year 2000 and sees it transported to 17th century Germany. Now these modern day Americans have to deal with the effects of the 30 Year War, culture shock and the vast differences in technology.

The novel follows Mike Stearn, a miner, and his friends as they explore this world and see the horrifying sights that were not so foreign to the residents of history. They try to figure out how to get home, but more so how to survive in this violent time.