There are alternate histories, traditionally considered a subset of science fiction—stories that tweak the past, imagine changes wrought by events twisting differently than the history we know. Then there are alternate histories with dragons. Or magic. Or mermaids. What if the Civil War resurrected magic? What if the Napoleonic Wars had been fought with flying beasts? These are the questions that fantastical alternate histories set out to answer.
Here are six fantasy alternate histories that would have made History class way, way more interesting.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Magic is centuries-gone in this alternate version of Regency England, or at least so people think. Then two real-life magicians appear: fussy Mr. Norrell and daring, dynamic Jonathan Strange unite to use their power to defend England against France in the Napoleonic Wars. Their tenuous partnership is strained as Strange travels farther and farther down a risky magical path. Wildly successful upon its release and praised by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Gregory Maguire, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is also coming to BBC America next month as a seven-part television series.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
In this version of 1985, everybody has a cloned dodo and literature reigns supreme. Like, really supreme. Enter Thursday Next, special operative in literary detection, who gets embroiled in a dastardly scheme to kidnap literary characters from the original manuscripts of famous books—and then ends up actually inside Jane Eyre. The first entry in an absolutely delightful series, The Eyre Affair has been compared to works and authors as wildly diverse as Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen Hawking, Lewis Carroll, and Umberto Eco.
Devil’s Tower, by Mark Sumner
In this 19th century America, the violence of the Civil War triggered the appearance of dangerous magic. People begin exhibiting extranormal abilities left and right, and by the time the book picks up, the Wild West is wilder than ever. Towns are collapsing under the continual threat of magic wielders, meaning that Sheriff Jake Bird has a pretty busy job…and that’s before he has to go up against General George Armstrong Custer, the most dangerous magician of them all.
Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
This long-running anthology series is a shared world project, created by a group of New Mexico science fiction authors and edited by Martin and Snodgrass. The background story involves an alien virus unleashed over New York City in 1946. It kills almost everybody it comes into contact with, but those who survive it either turn into deformed “Jokers” or gain superpowers (“Aces”). A superhero series that stays grounded in reality, so to speak, over the years Wild Cards has included stories by Martin, Snodgrass, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Howard Waldrop, Lewis Shiner, David Levine, Carrie Vaughn, and many others.
His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
Here’s what you need to know: it’s the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. Airplanes may not have been invented yet, but who needs silly little flying machines when you can engage the enemy with actual dragons? When Captain Will Laurence seizes a dragon egg from a French ship, he finds himself unexpectedly bonded with the beast and pushed into the Aerial Corps, where he must learn a new kind of fighting to protect Britain’s borders. Called “terrifically entertaining” by Stephen King, His Majesty’s Dragon is the first book in the Temeraire series.
The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda N. McIntyre
Seventeenth century France is the setting for this beautiful alternate history tale. Like so many monarchs before him, Louis XIV, the Sun King, desires nothing so much as immortality, and he’s willing to do any number of upsetting things to obtain it. He sends Father Yves de la Croix on a hunt for the magical answer, and de la Croix returns with a telepathic sea-woman. The King is intent upon eating her, and de la Croix’s sister is just as set on saving her in this lovely blend of history and fable. There’s also a film adaptation starring Pierce Brosnan, Kaya Scodelario, and Benjamin Walker, due to be released sometime in 2015.
What’s your favorite magical alternate history?