How Alternate Do You Like Your History?

My guest today is Gail Z. Martin, author of several fabulous fantasy series and many wonderful short stories.  Her next book will be Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga.

Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016. She also writes a steampunk series, the Jake Desmet Adventures, with Larry N. Martin.

As you can see, Gail is a very busy woman! Today she’s going to chat with us about alternate history and Jake Desmet and has great prize giveaways and other treats for us.

‘Alternate History’ covers everything from plots where the Roman Empire never fell and went on to rule the stars to suspense thrillers where one person’s choice between apparently banal options changes history. It can be any genre, any time period. That covers a lot of territory!

In Iron & Blood, the first book in the Jake Desmet Adventures, the steampunk world my co-author, Larry N. Martin, and I created is a lot like our own—but with a few key differences. It’s set in an alternative history Pittsburgh in 1898, and much of that city would seem familiar to anyone who knows the real Pittsburgh.
I&B final coverBut we’ve made some essential tweaks to the timeline that include a catastrophic fire and earthquake (never happened) which resulted in the temporary imposition of martial law (almost happened) and the emergence of a shadow government run by the city’s wealthiest men called the Oligarchy (debatable whether or not that happened).

It’s a future where industrialists whose fortunes depended on steam and coal sabotaged the nascent oil industry, thus securing steam’s ascendance. Magic exists and supernatural creatures prowl the mines and tunnels. George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla founded a corporation together to create amazing steam-driven inventions. Many things are ‘almost’ real—just given a half-twist by a few degrees to make it somewhere else.

I’m not a big believer in the ‘great man’ theory of history—that singular individuals shaped the destiny of the world by sheer force of will (and a big sword). There are plenty of examples of very talented, charismatic, ahead-of-their-time leaders who ended up on the wrong side of a firing squad because there wasn’t a confluence of social factors strong enough to support them against the power of the status quo. The ‘great man’ (or ‘great woman’) theory is very romantic and fits our need for flinty-eyed heroes, but it’s highly simplistic.

DEADLY CURIOSITIES-VENDETTAScratch the surface behind every powerful leader (good or bad) who emerges to make a huge impact on the world, and you’ll find a number of social factors that have been building for a long time, coming to a head just as the leader sees a chance to take his/her shot. Economic, cultural, historical, geographical, religious, and other trends have usually been fomenting for decades. Along the way, there are (in hindsight) decision points where a future event might have been easily diverted. But the farther down a course events move, the harder they are to redirect or stop.

So for example, the idea that just going back in time and shooting Hitler would have averted World War II is unlikely, because he was the opportunist who rode the crest, but the crest existed before him, not because of him. The economic sanctions imposed on Germany in the peace agreement after World War I created massive hardship and resentment against the other nations in Europe. The Bolshevik revolution in nearby Russia rattled the German ruling classes and made them fearful of dissent and wary of a working class that was hungry and angry. Authoritarian rule was entrenched in German culture, and anti-Semitism was a slow-growing cancer with a long history.

Germany’s national identity took great pride in its military, which the treaty nearly abolished. Hitler happened to be the one to seize the moment, but the moment had already been prepared for him by the confluence of circumstances. If he was shot by a time-traveler, the power of the storm surge of circumstances virtually guarantees that someone else—a new Fuhrer—would have arisen. Yes, details about the war and the Holocaust might have played out differently, but perhaps not by much. The confluence of circumstances was like floodwater roaring down a canyon. The course was set.

Why does this matter? If you’re going to write alternate history, then you need to consider tinkering with more than one element in the equation, or foresee a changed future that differs more in details than in grand scope. Assassinating one person—whether that would be Hitler, George Washington or Elizabeth I—might change key decisions, but not the ultimate force of the pent-up cultural forces in motion. One person can’t stop a tsunami. However—and this is important—the decisions made by that pivotal person can make the ultimate outcome worse or better—with unknown ramifications.

Here’s where the ‘butterfly effect’ comes in. Save one person by deflecting some of the floodtide, doom another.


My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here:

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors before 11/1!

Trick or Treat! Excerpt from my new urban fantasy novel Vendetta set in my Deadly Curiosities world here Launches Dec. 29

More treats! Win some Weird Wild West awesomeness!

Treats not Tricks! Read an excerpt from Resurrection Day, one of our Storm & Fury Steampunk stories set in the world of Iron & Blood

Trick or Treat from my friend John Hartness, an excerpt from his Bubba The Monster Hunter series: Hall & Goats –

For more info on Gail and her books, visit her website,

Gail is giving away a copy of Deadly Curiosities to one commenter today, so tell us which period in history you think would be the most fun to play around with or ask Gail a question about her work.  

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  • Sandyg265 says:

    I think that the period when the US was first being explored would be a fun time to work with because there was such a vast amount of unknown land.

  • Minna says:

    These days I seem to like fantasy and steampunk books set in the 1800s more than, well more ordinary historicals. There was also one steampunk series that was set in much more modern times which I liked (jax Garren’s series).

  • catslady says:

    Pittsburgh is where I live (although the suburbs) so I find this story fascinating and I’m sure it’s something I would enjoy. I agree with your theory about it’s more than just one person. I also think a lot of the ones that make it to the top are not necessarily the ones that deserve to be there. Usually they are the most nefarious.

  • Shannon says:

    I tend to play with ideas rather than people in history. What would have happened if someone discovered bacteria during the Black Plague? What would have happened if a certain country won a war–Moors move from Spain north or Egypt remained an independent kingdom? What would have happened if a key religion included women as leaders shortly after its founding? I could go on, but you get the idea.

  • EC Spurlock says:

    Hi Gail! Thanks for being with us today. I really enjoyed the Fallen Kings Cycle (wow, that was some great worldbuilding!) and looking forward to Iron and Blood (which looks like equally great worldbuilding!)

    Very thought-provoking post today; just thinking about how if one small detail was changed, how different the world would be. There are so many historical eras that would be profoundly different. I was just remarking to my kids the other day that if there had been no space race, we would be without many modern conveniences today, from velcro to microwave ovens.

    • EC, I also love Gail’s worldbuilding. I have Iron & Blood but haven’t read it yet–revisions in the way!

      That’s a great point about the space race. I used to try to get my mom to drink Tang because the astronauts supposedly did.

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the books and the worldbuilding. Giving you an immersive experience is my goal!

  • Helen says:

    These do sound very interesting I have read a few steam punk books and really enjoyed them and I do also enjoy urban fantasy 🙂 but one of my favourite eras to read is regency 🙂

    Have Fun

  • Jeanne Adams says:

    Hi Gail! *waves madly* So happy you came to the Bandit Lair! LOVE your books! :>

  • Mary Preston says:

    I love the idea of ‘Alternate History’.

    When you think about all the great explorers, the world map could be so very different. The Spanish & English, for example, carved up the map quite ruthlessly in their hey day. What if another nation beat them to it.