Book review: The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim S. Robinson

An epic world history novel, dealing with a world that could have been.

From the official blurb:

“It is the 14th century, and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur – the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe’s population was destroyed. But what if the plague had killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been – a history that stretches across cAn epic world history novel, dealing with a world that could have been.enturies, a history that sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, a history that spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation. These are the years of rice and salt.

This is a universe where the first ship to reach the New World travels across the Pacific Ocean from China and colonization spreads from west to east. This is a universe where the Industrial Revolution is triggered by the world’s greatest scientific minds – in India. This is a universe where Buddhism and Islam are the most influential and practiced religions, and Christianity is merely a historical footnote”.

Announcement: I have finally found an alternate history novel that I’ve a) managed to finish and b) actually loved. Most alternate history authors suffer from what one reviewer called a war-gaming focus on, well, wars, high politics and Great Men. This novel is completely different – Robinson eschewed this kind of approach in favor of showing centuries of change through the eyes of (usually) ordinary people caught up in the events. Moreover, these people tend to be poets, historians, scholars and philosophers – in other words, precisely the people whom most historical novels (alternate or not) tend to shove to the sidelines.

Robinson created an epic panorama of a different world, stretching from the 14th century to the year 2045. Interestingly, the cast of main characters stays the same, reincarnating over and over (and this novel features the most poetic and complex depiction of reincarnation I’ve ever seen). In the later novellas I found heartening shout-outs to the protagonists’ previous lives. Sometimes these are mystical (a resilient Chinese widow suffers from vivid dreams, where she is a young sultana leading her people to repopulate Al-Andalus), sometimes ordinary (a 20th century university professor talks about a unique anthology of women’s poetry composed by the aforesaid Chinese widow).

There are clashes of the empires all right, and the description of this world’s Great War is going to haunt you for days on end. But the author’s heart clearly lies with the social history and cultural change, and thank Eru for that. There are plenty of nerdy discussions of philosophy and religion, religion and science, science and art. There is also, to my great joy, a lot of attention paid to the status of women in any given society, and the characters who want to change things are never treated as a punchline.

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