5 Novels That Reimagine the 20th Century with Magical – and Mecha - New Twists

Adrian Liang on February 18, 2019
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Mediums who speak with the battlefield dead, World War II demon-summoners, a Berlin Wall made of magic, a meteor that kicks the Space Race into gear 10 years earlier, and mecha warriors who patrol the United States of Japan are among these recent books that re-envision the 20th century.

Harry Turtledove most famously gave history a spin in 1994 with his Worldwar novels that landed aliens on Earth amidst World War II, forcing Axis and Allies to join forces against a greater enemy. While alternate history has had its booms and busts, there are signs that it is gaining traction again among readers. Last year, Justina Ireland's much-loved Dread Nation imagined that zombies started stalking the living during the Battle of Gettysburg, prompting the creation of schools to teach black and Native American youngsters how to fight them so that others do not have to risk their lives.

These five recent novels take the backdrop of the 20th century and add new players, new magic, and new cataclysms to the scene, setting the stage for can't-put-down reads.


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Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Kowal kicks off this list with a World War I-set novel in which the Spirit Corps interview their side's battlefield dead just after they perish, gathering critical wartime intelligence about the enemy's position at a grueling cost to the mediums' mental health. The top-secret Spirit Corps have been critical to British success, but now it appears that the Germans are targeting the mediums. Spirit Corps member Ginger Stuyvesant must figure out how to stop the attacks on her group before they turn the tide of the war. Clever, engaging, and a welcome peek into a war that's often overshadowed by the one that followed.


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The Midnight Front: A Dark Arts Novel by David Mack

Mack's World War II series-starter sets Cade on a mission to become an apprentice magician in the Midnight Front so he can find the Nazi sorcerers that killed his family. But summoning demons takes a hard toll, even as Cade and the other magick-wielders in the novel are put through the meat-grinder of the Normandy invasion and the fire bombing of Dresden. Mack's second novel in this series, The Iron Codex, continues the action in the turbulent times of the Cold War.


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Breach: A Cold War Magic Novel by W.L. Goodwater

Speaking of the Cold War… at the Berlin Wall, strange things are afoot. The magical wall installed by Soviet magicians to partition Berlin appears to be failing in spots, potentially igniting a world-encompassing conflict between the Soviet Union and its enemies. Spies on both sides of the Cold War, deadly magicians, and secrets upon secrets are all poised to stop magic researcher Karen O'Neil as she is sent into the field to stop the wall's decay. I'm already looking forward to book 2 in this series.


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The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal

Kowal's second book on this list swings from WWI fantasy to Cold War science fiction, as a huge meteor decimates much of the U.S.'s eastern seaboard in 1952. A pilot and mathematician, Elma York joins the International Aerospace Coalition as a calculator to help bring humanity into space before the climate impact destroys life on the planet's surface. But York's skills extend beyond calculating, and soon she's determined to become one of the first astronauts, no matter what society believes she can and can't do. Follow this up with The Fated Sky, Kowal's second Lady Astronaut novel.


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Mecha Samurai Empire: A United States of Japan Novel by Peter Tieryas

Tieryas gives history a sharp twist, splitting the U.S. between Japan and the Nazis after World War II is won by the Axis powers, a la The Man in the High Castle. But PKD's vision of future America didn't include Tieryas's mechas and the soldiers like young Californian Makoto Fujimoto who are determined to become mecha pilots and fight the resistance that keeps the United States of Japan on edge. But maybe the resistance has a good reason for resisting…. A great read for those with a strong military sci-fi bent and who secretly want to be mecha pilots themselves.


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