The Years of Rice and Salt

by Shannon

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is the fourteenth 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? What if the plague 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 centuries, 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.

Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars, Robinson renders an immensely rich tapestry. Rewriting history and probing the most profound questions as only he can, Robinson shines his extraordinary light on the place of religion, culture, power, and even love on such an Earth. From the steppes of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere, from the age of Akbar to the present and beyond, here is the stunning story of the creation of a new world.

I wasn’t originally going to do a review of this one because I felt so meh about it. But lately, it seems every book I pick up has reincarnation themes in it and since I’m planning to do a review on one of the ones I’m reading right now, I decided to do this one as well.

The concept for this book is awesome. I think Robinson did a good job with it. Talk about world-building to the max. I’ve always been interested in history so I picked this one up at the used bookstore.

This is definitely, definitely a book for people who enjoy history. I cannot probably stress that enough. If you do not have a passion for history and the way that coincidence and minor events shapes the world, you will not like this book. I had a hard time following it. Though I liked this book and its concepts, at some point I got overwhelmed with it all. The book could have been shorter. Some of the sections were just plain boring.

What I liked most about this book is its reincarnation themes. This might be a spoiler, but if it is, it’s an incredibly minor one. The characters we follow through the book are reincarnations of the same characters from the beginning of the book. You can identify who is who because in each life, they take the same first initial for their name. I really liked this whole concept of reincarnation, particularly as a vehicle to tell a story. I don’t know a heck of a lot about Buddhism. I would say I know more about Islam, since I studied it more in school, but I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of all that. Reincarnation is a Buddhist concept. But I’m not sure if the idea of “soul grouping” also comes out of that. Lately, every time I see reincarnation themes, there are souls traveling in groups. I wasn’t aware that that was a thing and maybe it’s not. But it’s a cool idea, thinking about if souls are reincarnated, that they are bonded together for all eternity.

I don’t think I really understood the story that well either. It’s made up of lots of minor stories/sketches that span hundreds and hundreds of years. And at some point, as Robinson approached the modern age, the Earth lost all resemblance to the Earth I know and I got completely confused. Robinson is a good and skillful writer. I just don’t think I was quite the right reader for this book.

Recommended for: Major history buffs with an interest in religion, politics, and the rise and fall of civilizations.

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