Book recs?
March 12, 2010 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Book recs, please? Mystery/alternate history/alternate worlds

I hope not to ramble when I explain what I'm looking for as I'm finding it hard to describe. I'm looking for novels (especially series) that combine as may of the following elements as possible.
1) Mystery or intrigue - some sort of good plot. I don't want simply romance.
2) Based in some sort of alternate world that is not too ornate of a fantasy. Magical realism ok. I really like books where the similarity to real life/real earth is either noticeable or played upon (Like in Gaiman's Neverwhere)
3) Historical alternate world is +++++
4) Should not be excessively dark or grim
Basically, I like settings that are close to historical earth but different in some way because a) history unfolded differently or b)there are some fantastical elements. For example, I really liked the aspect of Carey's Kushiel books because of their similarity to the real world (and there maps!) Similarly, I liked Buffy on TV because the world was in so many ways normal except for the vampires.
Sorry if this was long or explained poorly.
Short version: Point of Hopes, Point of Dreams by Scott & Barnett was perfect!

Please hope me find some good books, Hive Mind!
posted by pointystick to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
The City and the City by China Mieville is a crime drama crossed with alternate reality fantasy is fantastic and made many best of lists last year.
posted by Edward L at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I came in here to suggest Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, and I see he has already been recommended. Yay! It's technically a YA book, but the story is terrific & the mythical city is, like the title says, Un-London. Good stuff!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 1:32 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Plot Against America
posted by nomad at 1:33 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn is a novel about 13th century rural German life right before the arrival of the Black Plague, however an alien spaceship crashes nearby complicating matters for the parish priest. It's a very good novel that has very strong characterization, a tense plot and genuine writing.
posted by rabbitsnake at 1:35 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gene Wolfe's An Evil Guest might fit the bill - the mystery element comes, as with most of Wolfe's books, in working out what on earth is going on; and seconding The City and the City - that was the last book I read, and it's excellent.

Also The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:37 PM on March 12, 2010

Jasper Fforde's Next novels? They're quite light, but set in an Earth world where things are ... different.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:49 PM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, imagines that the black plague killed 99% of the population of Europe (rather than the actual 30-60%). In order to keep a narrative track, the three main characters are reincarnated and we join them for several of their lifetimes. Each character is identified by their personality traits and the first letter of their names, which remain constant from lifetime to lifetime. The book spans 1405 AD through the present day in that alternate world.

It's a world where Islam occupied the ruins of Rome, Vienna, and Paris, and a Muslim Galileo/Edison begins the industrial revolution in Samarkand. Where China discovers the new world from the west and calls it Yingzhou. The native Americans form the Haudenosaunee League and largely control their own destiny.

posted by General Tonic at 1:51 PM on March 12, 2010

You will probably love New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear. I'm surprised no one else has mentioned that yet.
posted by doteatop at 2:04 PM on March 12, 2010

Fforde, Fforde, Fforde! jacquilynne said it before, but Fforde's Thursday Next novels are EVERYTHING you are asking for.

(Years of Rice and Salt and Yiddish Policemen's Union were both awesome, too, but definitely go for Fforde.)
posted by whatzit at 2:05 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might like Jo Walton's series Farthing. Ha'penny, and Half a Crown (set in a 1950-ish England where peace was settled between Germany and England).

A bit more literary but also a WWII alternate history is Christopher Priest's The Separation.

Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain has an alternate past, although goes off into science fictional tangent / ramifications.

Robert Charles Wilson's Mysterium is very interesting, with a rural (Canadian, if I recall right) town transported into another timeline. Very well done, one of my favorite novels. His novel Darwinia does a somewhat similar trick on a cosmically larger scale, though some people have had problems with how that book's situation is resolved, so reader beware on that one. (I like it, though.)

I enjoyed all these books, and incidentally second the recommendations of K.S. Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, both wonderful alt-history novels.
posted by aught at 2:11 PM on March 12, 2010

I really enjoy Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series. The first is Dead Witch Walking. They are set on an alternate Earth where witches, vampires, werewolves are "out of the closet" and coexist with mortals. Funny, reasonably good mysteries and well-formed characters.
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:14 PM on March 12, 2010

I recently read, and loved, Gail Carriger's Soulless. It's a funny alt-Victorian mystery with assorted werewolves, vampires, and spirited young ladies.
posted by zoetrope at 2:20 PM on March 12, 2010

I agree on Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Also: Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. It's not an alternate history, but it is well-drawn historical period with some fantastical flourishes underpinning the plot. Also it's fairly bright throughout, is a series, and overall is one of my most fondly remembered reading experiences.
posted by dervish at 2:22 PM on March 12, 2010

On the very light side, there's an epistolary fantasy novel called Sorcery and Cecilia.
posted by dilettante at 2:47 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Stylus Happenstance at 3:05 PM on March 12, 2010

Anathem has an extremely comprehensive alternate history of empirical science.
posted by Phssthpok at 3:07 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Phssthpok at 3:07 PM on March 12, 2010

You're pretty much describing Anathem, save for the series thing (but it is long). I'll third that.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:43 PM on March 12, 2010

Thirding Fforde. Get ye to Fforde.

Also, just finished To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis and it fits pretty much everything you're looking for plus some stuff I can't tell you because it would ruin the surprise.
posted by cooker girl at 3:51 PM on March 12, 2010

Guy Gavriel Kay might be right up your alley. He does historical fantasy-type books, meticulously researched, and he has several that are set in different time periods. The fantasy aspects are relatively minimal; mostly it's just good storytelling. Some of my favorites:

The Last Light of the Sun, set in fictional England/Wales and Denmark, around the time of the Viking raids.

The Sarantine Mosaic (book 1, book 2), set in fictional Byzantium.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in fictional Moorish Spain.
posted by number9dream at 4:05 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history.

I just finished it, most excellent.
posted by Long Way To Go at 4:36 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Philip Jose Farmer's "The Gate of Time" ain't too bad (alternate geography of Earth causes history to unfold differently, but convergently...)
posted by greatgefilte at 4:57 PM on March 12, 2010

Have you read any Murakami? Wild Sheep Chase/Dance Dance Dance fit most of your criteria. Hard Boiled Wonderland actually sounds closer to what you want, but people I've recommended that one to either love it or loathe it (i adore it).
posted by lilnublet at 5:32 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you are willing to dabble in YA, then Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza series is fun.
posted by gudrun at 5:47 PM on March 12, 2010

Mefi's own cstross's Merchant Princes series? The first book is The Family Trade.

It's about a woman from our world who discovers she has the ability to travel to an alternate history Earth, one where a number of her relatives hold power (and also have the ability to shift between the worlds).
posted by fings at 5:53 PM on March 12, 2010

Jonathan Strange, definitely.

You might also like Jon Courtney Grimwood's series starting with Pashazade, which is set in contemporary Alexandria--except that it's a world where the Central Powers won WWI, and the Ottoman Empire got control of Egypt back from Britain, though under pretty heavy German influence. It's another mystery, which starts with the hero discovering that he's the son of the Bey of Tunis and getting out of a Seattle prison on the strength of the fact. Unfortunately the Tiergarten--Germany's imperial secret service--is taking a close interest in him... I read the first one not so long ago, and have been meaning to get to the others at some point.

In the comic book line of things, Watchmen is a mystery, and it's set in an alternate 1980s America, as imagined by two people living in 1980s Britain. Just read it; not sure about the ending; still ready to confirm that on balance it is amazing and definitely worth reading. (Don'twatchmovie, though.)

Oh--just noticed the bit about 'should not be excessively dark or grim'. That rules Watchmen out, then.

Much lighter (because for children) but great fun: Philip Reeve's Larklight trilogy, dashing steampunk. Not as good as his Mortal Engines quartet, which is a bit further from what you're looking for, but starts jaw-droppingly (see below) and only gets better.

"IT WAS A DARK, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea."
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:17 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The only work of alternate history I ever truly enjoyed (and I consider myself a fan of the genre!) was Robert Harris's Fatherland. A very richly-imagined and authentic-seeming Nazi Germany in the 1960s, featuring a very serious mystery.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:01 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love S.M. Stirling's Change series; it's kind of a double/split series. The first one starts with Island in the Sea of Time. The second one starts with Dies the Fire.
posted by deborah at 11:06 PM on March 12, 2010

The Other 19th Century by Avram Davidson (this is a collection of short stories). A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park.
posted by Malla at 5:23 AM on March 13, 2010

Naomi Novik's Temeraire series is a great read. I know dragons have been done to death, but her historial fantasy premise of "the Napoleonic Wars... with dragons!" actually works.
posted by akabobo at 1:29 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! These are splendid recs. I have only read a few (I adored fatherland & have read Sorcery & Cecilia but now have the sequel from a friend!) yes, I dabble in YA happily.

MeFites rock!
posted by pointystick at 6:10 AM on March 15, 2010

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