Hugo winner Robinson (Antarctica, 1998, etc.) follows three characters over seven centuries on an alternate Earth in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions. Her charming though ponderous study in comparative religions opens with wandering Mongol scout Bold Bardash stumbling through an abandoned Athens, where the Black Death has wiped out everyone. Christianity just about dies out, Judaism is a minority cult, and, after many barbarous and pointless struggles between petty warlords, the New World is discovered by the Chinese Navy, and the Renaissance is played out as a conflict between a Middle Eastern Islam and Chinese Buddhism. Robinson explores ten periods in this alternate history with earthy, pragmatic Bardash, impetuous, vengeful Kyu, and quietly intellectual I-Li undergoing many reincarnations: orphaned Indian girl, Sufi mystic, African eunuch, Sultan’s wife, Chinese admiral, dourly brilliant alchemist, feminist poet, village midwife, glassblower, theologian, etc. Robinson avoids the battles and calamities that mar most alternate histories, leaving his characters to discuss at sometimes tedious length the esoteric ironies among evolving theological and political ideologies as China assumes unsteady mastery of the globe.
Overlong, but blessed with moments of wry and gentle beauty as friends and antagonists rediscover each other under different guises in exotically dangerous locales.