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The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

— feeling cool
The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson

In the 14th century, the plague hit Europe. But instead of killing a third of the population, it kills 99%. Islam and Buddhism rise, along with China and the Ottoman Empire. The New World is settled west to east and India becomes the country to spark the Industrial Revolution. This tale that spans centuries is told through a series of reincarnations, through religious and philosophical discussions, and through scientific discoveries.

I dived into this book very much looking forward to a grand, sweeping alternate history. However, this book wasn’t told the way I thought it would be. Using reincarnation to keep some semblance of the same main characters throughout the tale, the book still reads more like a sequential collection of short stories. The alternate history component is really subtle for the first half of the book. If you had not read the description of the book and just set into it, you would think that it was a plain historical fiction told from the viewpoints of the Muslim empire, China, and India. A few things indicate what is going on in the first half (such as the Chinese fleet discovering the western coast of the Americas). Yet much of the focus is about what is going on internally for these various empires.

The second half really makes it apparent that this is an alternate history but it is not until the end that the plague of the 14th century is discussed in what would be modern scientific archaeological circles. I found the second half of the book more interesting as the various governments and empires have spread and now have to deal with one another. I especially liked that some Native American groups managed to hold their own in this alternate history, becoming sovereign governments the other nations had to deal with.

Much of the book delves into various religions and philosophies. This is done through the main characters of each reincarnation. While it is done well, it is also done thoroughly and many ideas are repeated throughout the book. This is my only criticism of the book: sometimes this focus on religion and philosophy would get repetitive and I would tune out. While I understand that each reincarnated character believes they are experiencing these thoughts and moments of celestial clarity for the first time, after the 4th or 5th character went through this experience, I was worn out. There are very long stretches of contemplation and reflection and not much action in the first half of the book. The second half has a much better balance.

The ladies were no shrinking violets in this book. Roughly half the book is told through the eyes of female characters.  They are religious leaders, philosophers, poets, historians, scientists, etc. Yet they still have to struggle against patriarchy, except in one Native American nation. As a side note, it was nice to see a few lesbians represented in the last quarter of the book.

It was very interesting to see how history could have been affected by so many Caucasians and Christians dying out in the 14th century. Indeed, the red-headed Caucasian becomes a rare being indeed and highly prized among some harem owners.  While little pockets of Christianity continue on, it is a small cult-like religion. This aspect of the book was fascinating. While this was not the book I expected when I picked it up, I am very glad I gave it a listen. Plenty of food for thought lies within this book.

I received this audiobook at no cost from the publisher via Audiobook Jukebox in exchange for an honest review.

The Narration: Bronson Pinchot gave a decent performance. His character voices were all distinct and he had believable female character voices. My one little quibble is that he sometimes chose to do an accent and sometimes not. So sometimes we would have characters with foreign accents and then in the next reincarnation story none of the characters would have accents. Sometimes I was listening to an excellent performance and sometimes it was just OK.