6 brilliant alternative history books
Published on: 03 July 2023
Author Nazneen Ahmed Pathak recommends her favourite books that bring the past to life in an inventive, different way.
Photo: Laura Cuch
Alternative history, or stories that veer a bit from what we know to be the 'facts' in history, blending together the imagined and the known, can open up our eyes to things that might have been, and breathe life into stories which might not have been preserved in records.
They can stitch together fragments of records into stories and embroider them into rich, living worlds.
These are some of my favourite alternative history books...
1. The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Drama and Danger by JT Williams
Pic: Simone Douglas
This is a thrilling adventure that turns two real girls – Dido Belle, daughter of an aristocrat, and writer, campaigner and composer Ignatius Sancho's daughter Lizzie – into a daring detective duo. That way, it gives us an insight into the world of Georgian London through the eyes of two Black girls who were at the heart of British society at that time.
A wonderful take on the detective genre that's been made so popular by authors such as Robin Stevens, this story gives us a brand new duo to love and follow and opens up a world of Black political activism that Sancho was part of, but is rarely represented in stories for children – or adults. I can't wait to read the second in the series, Portraits and Poison, and hope there will be many more to come!
2. My Story: Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed
Pic: Euan Cook
This story is more of a fictionalised biography, but is no less thrilling or awe-inspiring as a result. The fact that we don't have much of Noor Inayat Khan's own story told in her words means that Sufiya Ahmed's imagining of it in her own voice is all the more important.
I knew Noor's story before I read this but I hadn't fully appreciated how dangerous her missions as a spy had been – this book is a testament to her incredible courage and sacrifice. It's also a gripping page-turner of a book!
3. Diver's Daughter: a Tudor Story by Patrice Lawrence
Pic: Alette Straathof
London wasn't the only city with Black and Asian communities living and working there before the 20th century. Port cities such as Newcastle, Cardiff and Liverpool all tended to be diverse places with a range of communities from around the world because of their importance as places of trade and travel.
I love this story by Patrice Lawrence because it brings the port city of Southampton – where I live – to life. It frames a fictional story around the real historical record of a Black person who lived and worked in a specialist trade, selvedge diving, in the city in the 16th century. Both London and Southampton jump off the page as bustling places filled with people from across the globe – which they were.
4. When Secrets Set Sail by Sita Brahmachari
This story is set in the present day but focuses upon the experiences of the ayahs, the South and East Asian nannies who looked after white British children in India and other colonies – and who were often abandoned in England after they'd looked after the children on the voyage back to Britain. These stranded women sometimes ended up living in the Ayahs' Home in Hackney while waiting for a passage home – which sometimes never came.
When Secrets Set Sail brings their stories to light in a powerful and imaginative way. Brahmachari is a master storyteller, and not only does this story have us listen to the unheard voices of the ayahs, it also explores the ways in which certain stories – often those of people most at the margins of society – get lost or hidden from history.
5. The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson
One for readers aged 13+, but a powerful story based on the extraordinary true life experiences of Mary Wilcocks from Devon, who reinvented herself as the exotic Princess Caraboo, and played upon prejudices and assumptions of British society at that time for her own survival.
Catherine Johnson's spare, punchy prose brings to life a fascinating history. The story's blend of mystery, romance and adventure stays with you long after you've finished it.
6. Stolen History by Sathnam Sanghera
Pic: Jen Khatun
Finally – and I am cheating a little as it's a history book rather than 'alternative history' – I could not ignore Sathnam Sanghera's recently published history of the colonisation of South Asia. Stolen History is a hugely important moment for children's non-fiction publishing and is the first, I hope, of a long line of history books for young readers that starts to tell the stories of colonialism and enslavement and their legacies.
If you're interested in the history behind my story, Sanghera manages to tell the history of colonialism in South Asia to young readers in a fun and accessible way, while never flinching from the brutal facts, and gives us modern analogies that help us make sense of the massive scale of the colonial project in South Asia. Unmissable for non-fiction and historical fiction fans alike.
The City of Stolen Magic by Nazneen Ahmed Pathak is out now.