I remember seeing this book in the summer of 1987, while working at a book wholesaler, and I have been long hunting around to try to figure out what title it was.

The book opens with some monks determining that rats were somehow connected to the spread of the bubonic plague (Black Death). The Catholic Church seizes upon this and decides to use a ship full of rats as a weapon in a new Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. The ship was crewed by former convicts(?), pardoned by the Church, and apparently immune to the plague.

However, after departure, the plague mutated, killing the crew. The ship drifted and crashed into land somewhere in the Adriatic, releasing the rats back into Europe.

The net: instead of 1 in 3 European dead due to the plague, it is now 9 in 10, due to the more virulent strain of plague.

This was all a precursor to the main alternative history story, set in more-or-less present day, where the three superpowers are some Mayan/Incan/Aztec society, a Muslim society, and China.

  • 1
    +1 sounds interesting and I'd like to know more about the story!
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Apr 15, 2012 at 22:50
  • The alternate history list is a good resource for alt-hist stories, and does lead to The Crystal Empire by L. Neil Smith as Pureferret found.
    – user56
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 0:34

1 Answer 1


I think you may be mistaken about when you read the book (then again maybe not, after some further research)

Looking on wikipedia, there are two books that fit the description quite closely:

  • The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson, the Black Death of the 14th century kills 99% of the people in Europe and over the next seven centuries, India, China and the Islamic world come to dominate the planet.

And not so close:

  • In High Places (2006) - The Black Death was far more virulent across Europe, leading to a world dominated by Muslims. Part of the Crosstime Traffic Series by Harry Turtledove

And finally wit hsome googleing, I think this is the right one:

  • The Crystal Empire (1987) by L. Neil Smith The story is set in an alternative world where the Black Death plague killed almost all of the inhabitants of Western Europe, instead of one-third in 0TL. The story is set in 2042 where the world is dominated by Muslims. The Chinese and the Aztecs are featured as well. Coincidently the capital of the Saracen (Muslim) Empire is Rome! The protagonist is a European who has to confront an alliance of Aztecs and Chinese. He is aided by a Muslim princess in his quest.
  • 1
    Yeah, The Crystal Empire looks like it -- many thanks! Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 12:24
  • 2
    OP's definitely not talking about The Years of Rice and Salt, but I can vouch that it's a MAGNIFICENT work.
    – Dan Ray
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 12:33
  • 1
    I'm not posting as an answer since OP has identified The Crystal Empire, but Robert Silverberg's The Gate of Worlds is also similar. And has steam cars. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 17:26

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