Posts Tagged ‘alternate history’

Medieval Europe is all the rage in the fantasy genre. Though settings inspired by different places and times are becoming more popular, the main flavour of heroic and epic fantasy is knights, kings and feudal oppression. Even when settings aren’t medieval European-looking, they still pick up that era’s traits by default.


The doorstep evangelists got a real shock at Tod’s house

But in the other genre spinning unreal worlds from the real past, that of alternate history, medieval settings are fairly rare. The different way of combining the familiar and unfamiliar used in that genre leads to a lot of setting rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the overwhelming volume of variant Second World Wars.

Redressing the balance, I wrote a piece for Alternate History Weekly Update looking at three possible alternate medieval pasts. So if this stuff interests you at all please check it out.


Photo by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons


Nowhere is the line between representing the real world and inventing new ones more grey than when writing alternate history. On the one hand you have to craft a setting that is new and coherent, that presents enough novelty to interest readers. On the other hand you have to get a lot of real details right or those knowledgeable about the period will criticise.

Damn that’s some tasty cover art

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt shows one response to this challenge, deviating from reality far enough back that the fictional world swiftly becomes very different from what we’re familiar with. Differences from reality don’t undermine plausibility. This approach also suggests that history could have been very different based on a single change.

Harry Turtledove’s Great War series takes a different approach, using so many historical details that you can’t help but be convinced, if occasionally overwhelmed. This is alternate history that suggests a certain level of inevitability, that other historical outcomes would have been similar to our own.

For ‘Odin’s Mirror’ in From a Foreign Shore I took yet another approach. This is a story about someone who doesn’t understand what is happening around him, and so the reader doesn’t need to know the details. I avoided key points like ‘how did this happen?’ because they weren’t what the story was about, and because hopefully readers will be focussed on the character’s perspective and not mind that I’ve fudged the issue. Only time and reviews will tell.

What other ways can you approach world building for alternate history? And what alternate histories have you found convincing or unconvincing? Share your thoughts below.

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?


My new short story collection, From a Foreign Shore, is out today. Containing five short stories set in the past, or an alternate past, or something vaguely related to the past, it includes Arthurian knights, Vikings, surly peasants and a statue found guilty of homicide – man, those medieval folks sure knew how to do law.

This collection dips into my fascination with history and with twisting that history around. It features real historic incidents as well as stuff I’ve just made up, and the characters range from the historical to the mythological to the clearly invented.

From a Foreign Shore is available on Kindle through Amazon and in all other formats via Smashwords, all for less than a pound/dollar/euro/other currency without too many zeroes, so please go check it out.


The free copy of From a Foreign Shore that I offered for reviewing my previous books goes to Dylan Hearn, who not only left me an Amazon review but wrote a whole blog post about how much he enjoyed my book – thanks Dylan, your book will be in the email shortly.


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On a completely unrelated note, I attended Fantasy Con in York over the weekend. I had a great time and have a lot of notes from panels and other events, which I’ll write up and post here over the next month. So stay tuned for authorial insights on sword fighting, publicising your work, politics in sf+f and how to sound like a radio using only a pint glass.

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

I bet you’ve thought about exactly none of these questions – not unreasonably, all things considered. But I have, and they’re among the stories in my next e-book, From a Foreign Shore, which will be out next Monday, 8 September.

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

From a Foreign Shore is a very small collection – five short stories, two of them flash pieces of only a few hundred words. Appropriately enough it also has a small price tag – 99c or your local equivalent, whether that’s 77 English pennies or 53 Venusian bdumric (OK, even Amazon probably aren’t selling books on Venus yet, but I don’t want to miss the purple-skinned market when the time comes).

After I posted the cover on Saturday a couple of people asked for more information. This collection has a loosely historic theme, and I mean very loosely. Here’s a little bit on the stories…

Holy Water – a pair of medieval servants are given the frustrating task of executing a statue, in a story based on a couple of local Cheshire legends.

Farewell to a Foreign Shore – a flash fiction piece about a Viking heading out to sea.

Odin’s Mirror – a Viking chief faces what appears to be his god in an alternative version of dark age Europe.

From the Sea – a messenger is plagued by visions as he runs from the Battle of Marathon.

Sir Cai, the Shining Knight – an oddity of a story involving Arthurian nobles and a mysterious stranger.

This collection is part of my on-going effort to gather lots of my previously published stories into themed collections. I’ve already published Riding the Mainspring, the steampunk collection, and there are currently untitled science fiction and fantasy collections coming over the next couple of months. That left me with a handful of stories with a loosely historic connection, which I’ve bundled together in this mini anthology. Hence its brevity and the presence of the slightly less historic Sir Cai, which I’m very fond of but just didn’t fit with the other collections.

Think of this is a bite-sized release to tide you over until I get the fantasy anthology ready. There’s plenty to look forward to from me over the next few months, and I hope you’ll all be there to read it. In the meantime mark your calendars for next Monday, because there are Viking, peasants, knights and some other oddities coming, all in the space of five short stories.


Competition results!

When I first released Riding the Mainspring and Mud and Brass I said that I’d give away a free copy of the next collection to someone who posted me a link to their Amazon review by the end of August. Two people posted their links in the comments, and so I’m going to declare them both winners – congratulations to Malwen and Sue Archer, I’ll email you about your advanced copies of From a Foreign Shore.

Because those reviews are incredibly useful to me, and because I only had the books on Amazon at the time, I’m going to declare a round two to this competition. So, post a link to your review below, wherever that review is, and I’ll enter you in a draw to receive a free copy of From a Foreign Shore. Deadline is Sunday night, so that I can send you the e-book when it comes out on Monday.

Whether it’s for the sake of the free book or from the goodness of your heart, if you have a chance then please get reviewing!

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

It might be a bit narcissistic, but I still get a huge buzz out of having my own book covers. And here’s the next one, coming soon to an e-reader near you.


I love good television, but for the first decade of the 21st century it felt like all the best stuff came from the US. Recently that’s changed. Obviously there are the Scandi-dramas much beloved by Guardian readers, TV critics and, well, me. But Channel 4 and its subsidiaries have also upped their game with shows like Misfits and Top Boy. Among the highlights was last year’s conspiracy drama Utopia, which returned to our screens this week, and did so in spectacular style.

Nightmarishly thoughtful

Utopia is a dark, twisted drama with a speculative thread, about a conspiracy to unleash terrible things on the world for the sake of a supposed greater good. I wouldn’t exactly call it noire – it’s too British for that – but it’s clearly influenced by long traditions of crime, conspiracy and horror films. The story works far better if you come to it fresh, but if you want to get an idea of what’s happening Between Screens has a summary and discussion of season two episode one.


This is a smart drama, one that intertwines real modern concerns about population growth with pop culture, conspiracy thriller, re-imagined recent history and a distrust of authority that runs deep in certain parts of the British psyche. This first episode of season two is like watching a moral question explored on screen. How do we deal with the problem of an ever-growing human population? Is there a crisis coming, and if so how do we handle it? And a wider question around this, visible in the characters’ personal relationships – where is the line drawn when you say you are acting ‘for their own good’? From the raising of children to the treatment of politics and population, this last question comes up again and again.

This is a drama that is meant to unsettle, and it does its job.

Beautifully dark

The first series made heavy use of a comic book in its plot. This one starts with an episode framed in old-fashioned 4:3 ratio. The whole thing has an intensity that’s cranked up by devices borrowed from across cinema stylings – you can read more on that from the show’s director here, and see some examples here.

These are devices that create both an absorbing intensity of atmosphere and a sense of distance from the story. As you’re watching, the familiarity of these cultural artefacts draws you in, drags you along. But there was a moment when they first hit, and in reflecting on them afterwards, when they reminded me of the unreality of the show.

Which is probably a good thing. As a certain tabloid seems to have forgotten in its hypocritical fussings over a plot point borrowed from real life, this is fiction. It reflects reality, but it never claims to be real.

Making the effort

Utopia is a show that takes great effort both from creators and viewers. I’m terrible at remembering plot points, and jumping back in after a year left me entertained but confused. I may well need to go back and re-watch the first series before continuing, which will be another six hours very well spent.

This show gives you a lot to think about, and to get the most out of it you have to do that thinking, to connect the pieces together, almost to become part of the conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that is the heart of the show as you look for patterns that may or may not be there.

It’s well worth the effort.

Who else out there is watching Utopia? What do you think of season two so far?