For many, the phrase “alternate history” calls to mind Victorian steampunk or an Axis victory in WWII. But other authors have traded steampower for gunpowder, embraced new narratives, and otherwise pursued the divergent time lines less traveled.
Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (Tor, Aug. 2016) offers a deliberate challenge to steampunk tropes. Set in an imagined utopia in an alternate Belgian Congo, it features a diverse cast and exemplifies what SF author Doselle Young calls “cotton-gin punk,” a term referring to the intersection of industrial technology and people of color.
“Much alternate history, particularly steampunk, talks about the British Empire, and about First World colonial efforts,” says Claire Eddy, a senior editor at Tor. But, she says, “there’s a whole playground out there, and we’re starting to see it.”
Cassandra Rose Clarke, in Our Lady of the Ice (S&S/Saga, Oct.), imagines a domed metropolis in an alternate, Argentina-colonized Antarctica. Formerly a Victorian-era amusement park staffed by androids as well as humans, Hope City is now home to citizens who’d prefer to move back to the mainland, including PI Eliana Gomez, who hopes to raise funds by solving a tricky case. PW’s starred review of the book said “the world-building will sweep readers away.”
Other publishers have been widening their scope, too. As Del Rey editorial director Tricia Narwani explains, “It’s very difficult now to find a new way to do WWII or the Victorian period.” The coming months bring new installments in ongoing series that mine eras as diverse as the Cold War, the 13th century, and the Napoleonic Wars.
Books set in the Napoleonic Era fit into an emerging subgenre known as “flintlock fantasy.” It focuses on the emergence of industrialization and of flintlock weapons, which were introduced in the 17th century and in wide use through the mid-19th century.
“These books explore elements of technology, and what the politics mean,” says Joe Monti, editorial director for Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint. It makes sense, he says, that authors are turning to different periods of history for inspiration: “A lot of those really interesting ‘What if’s?’ have been explored, so we’re moving toward a wider point of view.”
Zen Cho’s recently released debut, Sorcerer to the Crown (Ace), is set during the Napoleonic Wars in a magic-infused alternate England, and challenges the race and gender politics of the era: a former slave becomes the new Sorcerer Royal, and an orphaned young woman possesses an unladylike affinity for magic. PW’s starred review said the book “skillfully blends fantasy and intrigue with issues of race and gender politics.”
Laura Anne Gilman’s Silver on the Road (S&S/Saga, Oct.), which launches the Devil’s West series, explores an alternate American West of the early 19th century. In the book, the lands west of the Mississippi are riddled with magic, inhabited by strange creatures, and controlled by a man thought to be the Devil.
A similar broadening of time periods is taking place in YA novels. As in adult novels, “We’re seeing some different takes on American history,” says Martha Mihalick, senior editor at HarperCollins’s Greenwillow imprint.
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig (Greenwillow, Feb. 2016) is a debut YA fantasy in which a teenager journeys from the present day to 19th-century Hawaii via a time-traveling ship and a magical map.
Another YA fantasy from Greenwillow, the September release Walk on Earth a Stranger by Fire and Thorns trilogy author Rae Carson, launches a series set during the 1849 California gold rush, featuring a girl whose magical ability to sense gold puts her in danger from her murderous uncle. PW’s starred review called the book “simply terrific—tense and exciting, while gently and honestly addressing the brutal hardships of the westward migration.”
Other alternate histories put a fantastical spin on early 20th-century events. Matthew De Abaitua’s recently released If Then (Angry Robot) imagines a postapocalyptic English village forced to reenact WWI events by an all-powerful computer. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Ghost Talkers (Tor, Aug. 2016) posits that a Spirit Corps of mediums aided the Allied efforts during WWI.
Breath of Earth by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager, Aug. 2016) stars a practitioner of geomancy, or earth divination, caught up in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In Lee Kelly’s Criminal Magic (S&S/Saga, Feb. 2016), magic, sorcerers, and addictive elixirs pervade the 1920s Prohibition era, while Black City Saint by Richard A. Knaak (Pyr, Mar. 2016) sees an immortal St. George battling evil against the backdrop of a gang war in Prohibition-era Chicago.