Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel is an alternative history with a broad canvas: medieval Europe is entirely wiped out by an outbreak of plague, and the last thousand years of history are re-imagined as the interplay between Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. America is discovered and colonized by an east-sailing Chinese fleet and later becomes divided into a Chinese west coast, an Arabic east coast and a central reserve held by the native Americans who have united in the face of the invaders. Unopposed by Christian crusaders the Islamic world expands West and Newton’s discoveries in optics, mathematics and gravitation are made by scholars of the Qu’ran, while an Indian league inspired by the native Americans is the source of the Industrial Revolution.
The novel is structured around the concept of reincarnation: the same characters reoccur in each era with no knowledge of their previous lives; they must somehow recognize each other and work together to improve the world. After their deaths they meet in the bardo and discuss their experiences before being reincarnated into another time. They may be rich or poor, powerful or meek, but they are always the witnesses or enactors of key moments in history.
This is an enjoyable and very original novel. As with the best alternative histories, you will also learn more from this epic than from any textbook, particularly about the ideologies of the world.