Alternative Histories are one of my favourite kinds of ‘What If…?’ fiction. They start with a story I know, with an accepted version of events and then make a few small changes, sometimes changing the outcome, sometimes changing my understanding of the outcome and sometimes letting me see a past that would produce a future I’d never imagined.
This week, I’ve picked two Alternative Histories, one set in Britain and one set in North America. Both are set in contemporary time but times that are very different from the ones we live in.
The British one is the second in a trilogy that poses the questions: What if the elite who had ruled Britain for nearly four centuries owed their position to their ability to use magic? What would they do to the rest of us to hang on to power?
The North American one is a debut novel that poses the questions: What if North America had never been colonised? What would it look like now?
I’m looking forward to visiting both alternative realities and getting answers to those questions.
‘Tarnished City’ by Vic James (2017)
I was impressed by ‘Gilded Cage’, the first book in this trilogy, both because the alternative history that Vic James imagines is plausible and quintessentially British and because the two families that she focuses on, one noble and one commoner offer struggles that explore the seeds of rebellion while keeping everything personal and emotionally engaging.
In ‘Gilded Cage’, Vic James introduced us to a version of contemporary Britain where everyone owes a decade of slavery to the magic-using elite that has ruled Britain since they executed Charles I in the seventeenth century. The elite, as well as having accumulated vast wealth through centuries of rule, each one of them has enough magic to defeat an army.
What made this quintessentially English for me, wasn’t the idea of a magic-wielding elite but the fact that that elite has convinced everyone that the status quo cannot and should not be changed. They have normalized slavery and made their role as rulers a fundamental part of national identity. They do this partly by letting people choose the decade in which they will serve out their slave days, partly by having humans manage the process of enslavement and the use of slaves and partly by presenting themselves as glamorous and admirable. As I read the book, I realised that this is a Britain that would bring Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk great joy.
Many fantasy books with magic-wielding elites are stories about people trying to join those elites, or if they’re already a member, trying to protect or change them. What I liked most about Vic James’ vision is that she wants to burn the elite down. It’s not that she sees everyone in the elite as evil but that she sees the continued existence of the power structure that they’ve created as unacceptable.
‘Gilded Cage’ planted the seeds for rebellion. I’m hoping that ‘Tarnished City’ will see the beginning of the end for the elite.
‘The Peacekeeper‘ by B. L. Blanchard (2022)
‘The Peacekeeper’ is available from 1st June 2022 but Amazon is offering it for free as part of their ‘First Reads’ promotion. It’s a debut novel and so an unknown quantity but the premise of the book hooked me. What would North America be like if it had never been colonised?
My imagination started to spin as soon as I heard the question.
Imagine a North America that wasn’t built on Spanish greed, Christian Fundamentalist extremism, genocide and cultural annihilation, massive and persistent slavery and a continuous influx of the desperate from other lands. What would that look like?
I have no idea but I’m keen to find out.
I’m not usually a fan of the ‘sweep of global history’ sort of alternative history books. They provide an alternative narrative to the one we are fed in our daily lives but they tend to be impersonal at best and deterministic at worst. I was encouraged to see that B. L. Blanchard (I wonder why she didn’t go with Brooke?) is keeping her alternative history personal and using a single family and a murder investigation to structure her tale.
I’m hoping for something original, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. If I get that, this will be the start of a great series.