Book Review - The Years of Rice and Salt

So I promised Bwana that I'd write a review of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. There's one slight glitch in the system - over vacation I decided that I didn't like the book and I wasn't going to finish it. From a certain viewpoint that is a review, but not a very comprehensive one - so I'll address why I stopped in some more detail.

I thought the book was an alternate history look at a world where the Plague wipes out Europe. That is part of the story, but not the main conceit. The main focus is exploration of reincarnation. There is a small group of characters who always get reincarnated together. Off-hand that sounds like a neat way to explore different time periods and the long term implications of the plague. However it creates a narrative issue, and one that I'd contend that KSR doesn't solve well. As the characters are reincarnated they change (sometimes major changes into a tiger, or from a woman to a eunuch male and the like), so tracking which character is which isn't as straightforward as you would hope. It also makes identifying with any of them difficult. I stopped reading when I realized I didn't care about any of these characters or their struggles.

The other thing I found aggravating was that the history didn't track against what I know cleanly. I read about two thirds of the book before giving up, and I think I was up to the analogue of World War I. It's difficult to say because there are no dates, and I think some of the reincarnations weren't in linear timeflow. Additionally, there are very few place references that stay the same, so you end up in an amorphous situation where you're not entirely sure where or when a particular episode is playing out. That makes the "alternate history" aspect of it basically worthless, since tracking the progress of history is very difficult.

In short, I realized I wasn't enjoying reading it. My main motive force the last couple of times I picked it up was to finish it so I could move onto Terry Prachett's Monstrous Regiment. My advice would be to just skip Years altogether.

I really like KSR's Mars books, mainly for the hard sci-fi contained therein. My other readings from him don't have the same hard SF draw.