The classic Phillip K. Dick novel, "The Man in the High Castle," imagines a world where the Nazis and Japanese Empire were victorious in WWII. (Image via Cultured Vultures)

5 of the Best Alternate History Books to Introduce You to the Genre

Just beware the man-eating hippos in (alternatively historical) Texas.

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Just beware the man-eating hippos in (alternatively historical) Texas.

What if the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct? What if the Axis Powers had won World War II?  What if some humans could wave magic wands and turn turtles into teapots? OK, that sounds a bit like “Harry Potter,” but if you possess just one ounce of curiosity, you’ve probably tossed a crazy “what if” thought around your head about the possibilities of alternate history.

So, what if you’ve ever wondered “what if” about anything at all? You should be happy to hear that there is a genre (or several) at your disposal. Works of alternate history are occasionally classified in a field of their own and more frequently found spattered across the genres of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy and even Young Adult fiction.

Basically, if you have an imagination, alternate history delivers. The following five works are a great way to dip your toe into the unique genre, as each book neatly navigates fantasy and reality in great hypothetical historical tangents and boasts twisted plot-lines that showcase the results of putting historical facts and fantastical elements in the blender.

1. “Leviathan”

In this dazzling re-imagining of history, World War I erupts between two great European powers — the Clankers (Axis Powers), who operate technologically advanced machinery and the Darwinists (Allies), who rely on biological hybrids such as jellyfish hot air balloons and aerodynamic whale ships.

alternate history
Scott Westerfield’s universe imagines a WWI battlefield full of biological hybrids and advanced technology. (Image via Leviathan Wiki)

Although the complexities of this alternate history — many of which strongly parallel real events — should be enough to attract lovers of history and fantasy alike, the strength of the story lies in the characters. Crown Prince Alek, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, finds himself on the run after his father, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is assassinated in Serbia; Deryn Sharp is a girl disguised as a boy fighting in the British Air Service. After their paths fatefully cross, the two establish a charming bond threatened by their secrets, origin stories, social classes and the Great War itself.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Scott Westerfeld’s universe of “Leviathan” is undoubtedly bizarre, but it’s somehow, totally convincing. The sequels only get better.

2. “The Man in the High Castle”

“The Man in the High Castle” is usually placed near (or at) the top of all alternative history lists and for good reason. In this classic 1962 gem, Philip K. Dick explores what life would be like if the Allied Powers lost World War II, and Japan and Germany became rulers of the United States.

With elaborate world-building that is dramatically different from most YA dystopian novels of the day, “The Man in the High Castle” relays a story of clever politics and convoluted plot threats, even including a well-developed story within a story. See, in the book, an author actually mirrors what Dick himself is doing by speculating on what life would have been like if the Nazis hadn’t won — in a book called “The Man in the High Castle.”

If you’re not game to tackle on a pretty dense (but totally worthy) novel, rejoice. There’s an ongoing Amazon TV series based closely on the novel.

3. “The Only Thing to Fear”

America has been carved into pieces by the Axis Powers, and 16-year-old Zara, of Japanese and English heritage, lives in the Eastern American Territories under rigid Nazi regime. As she dreams of the type of freedom she only knows from banned books, a revolution begins to sputter into a deadly coup. Zara is drawn right into the middle by a secret that will either take down the rulers for good — or destroy her.

“The Only Thing to Fear is another alternate history of the outcome of World War II, set 80 years after the Allies apparently lost the war to Hitler’s genetically modified super-soldiers.

Caroline Tung Richmond weaves an intense story of prejudice, racism, love and freedom in the context of a not-entirely unrealistic alternate history. Drama, action, magic, a tad of romance and a refreshingly non-excessive quantity of gruesome detail produce a piece of speculative fiction well-worth visiting for its simple “what if” premise and proffered world full of answers.

4. “White Cat”

Imagine that the 18th Amendment hadn’t prohibited alcohol, but magic.

Cassel comes from a family of curse-workers with the ability to change your emotions, memories, dreams and luck, among other things, but magic is illegal and they’re all criminals. Well, except Cassel, who has no gift at all. Haunted by terrible secrets of the past, Cassel has built up a strong face of normalcy that crumbles when he begins sleepwalking and dreaming of a white cat that always wants to tell him something.

In “White Cat,” Holly Black laces dark mystery with humor and history to produce an intense read that is part alternative history, part urban fantasy and part twisted fairy tale. Nothing about the book is remotely ordinary — it has new twists on old gypsy myths, conspiracy theories, supernatural mafias and great sequels.

5. “River of Teeth”

If you are curious about the dietary preferences of hippopotamuses and query google, you’ll most likely come across the concept “mostly herbivorous” one or 700 times. The key word there, at least as far as “River in Teeth” is concerned, is “mostly.” Hippos are the size of large cattle and do, in fact, kill if provoked. They will also swallow any meat that happens to be on their large and pointy teeth.

In the (real) early 20th century, the United States government constructed and subsequently abandoned a plan to import hippopotamuses into Louisiana where they would be bred and slaughtered for meat. In “River of Teeth,” the bayou quickly becomes overrun by feral hippos (who most definitely use their large and pointy teeth to kill and consume meat) and wild hippo wranglers.

alternate history
“River of Teeth” imagines a bizarre Wild West consisting of man-eating hippos and hippo wranglers. (Image via NPR)

“River of Teeth” is not just another re-imagining of a world war or a major world event, but a daringly creative vision of a hippo-rampaged, Wild West-era America. The author’s use of a single, gender-neutral pronoun and non-binary characters also put this book far, far beyond the historical time in which it is set.

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