The Years Of Rice And Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is an alternative history as opposed to what is more often called "science fiction". In his Mars trilogy, Robinson described a time in our future on another planet with some new technologies. In "Antarctica", the setting was closer to the present and on Earth, although there were important science elements. Here Robinson has gone into another subgenre.
The premise is that the plagues of the Middle Ages wiped out nearly all Europeans. This left no European nations to shape world history in the several centuries that followed. Of course, this did not leave the world without civilizations - China had long had a strong civilization, the Arab world was more of an intellectual center than Europe during the Middle Ages, etc. In this alternative history China, Islam and the Mongol empire are the major forces initially. Later, a couple of other civilizations become important "movers and shakers".
Alternative history books are sometimes like action or adventure novels. They can be a single story of a war, international intrigue, political dynamics in which a set of characters participate. I'm not familiar with the structure Robinson uses. It's more like a series of short stories, each involving a different group of people and places, each story set at a later point in history than the last. The events in one "story" may have an influence on a later one, but there are no smooth transitions from one "story" to the next. Although none of these stories is about an entirely mundane life of a typical peasant or shepherd, neither are most of them kings, generals, heads of religious movements or the like. They are generally influential in some sense and to some degree - not necessarily in their lifetimes. The stories vary as to which civilization they take place in.
At the end of each section of the book / story for that historical period, some of the characters find themselves together in a realm where souls go between incarnations. Supposedly, each "story" includes reincarnations of the same spirits, but the characters only carry a general inclination of their personality from life to life. Personally, I could have done without reincarnation being a part of the book. Perhaps other readers will find these inter-incarnation episodes and other aspects of the reincarnation thread to give a needed something to the book, I did not.
The first section / story in the book has a Mongol army coming to the eastern edges of where the plague has recently emptied Europe of most human life. It takes more than half the book before we reach the appearance of steam engines. At the end of the book, there are a number of substantial political and technological differences from our present world - but their technology is basically in the range of our 20th century or so. This is certainly not a glimpse at what our science and technology could have been.
The book does show us political and scientific progress in this other world. We don't see any trick that makes human progress go fast, sometimes new developments have little impact when they are first made, sometimes early attempts at change are overcome by forces of the status quo, and sometimes the destruction of war overshadows constructive efforts elsewhere. In this sense, Robinson's book is realistic, rather than being an overly optimistic utopian view. Individual humans have strengths and weaknesses, human societies have internal divisions and each society has its differences with others. History is not a straight and pretty road forward.
In the end, I did not find his realism to surround that much to offer me. Upon finishing the book I did not particularly feel I'd been offered insights on how we could improve our world. In some sense, by the end, this other world seemed to face fewer threats than ours, but we don't really learn what its future is. Even if they were on a better road than ours, my emotional response was not of a clearly better time and place for the world. And then, perhaps the point of view here is that we must seek individual happiness.
An alternative history does not have to provide such insights. Sometimes one functions more as an action or adventure story. Sometimes it is fascinating by showing what is like an alien world and society. This book is not bad, but did not win me over in any of these ways.
The book does give interesting views of a number of cultures. There are ideas on science, government, religion, etc. Some readers will find the thinking these lead to useful.