Book Review

Babel

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

  • Author: R.F. Kuang
  • Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: August 23, 2022
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager

Thank you to NetGalley and Harper Voyager for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: death of a parent, racism, abuse, violence, blood, racial slurs, drug use, mention of slavery, torture

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.

Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?

Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire. 

I was over the moon about getting approved for this book, and couldn’t wait to start this as a buddy read with my favorite buddy read partner, Becky @ Becky’s Book Blog. Somehow, I always manage to gain so much more insight and coherence when I’m able to process my thoughts with her, and there was just so much to process with this book. Normally, the two of us fly through our reads, starting by agreeing to read the first 25%, then the next, then mutually agreeing to finish the book, typically within 2 days. However, with this one, we wound up taking our time with this, mainly because it was a lot to process and we just wanted to savor what we were reading. Also, my mom had just had a major surgery, and Becky was being so patient with me because I wasn’t reading anywhere near as quickly as I normally do, even with this book that was consuming all my free thoughts and time (not that I had a lot of free time). 

Like in the Poppy War trilogy, Kuang has combined history and fantasy in the most fascinating way. This time, her focus is the British Empire, and Oxford University in particular. Initially, it seems great—Babel offers opportunities to minorities and women, which is unheard of in the early 1800s, there’s plenty of darker undertones that don’t appear until a little later into the story. 

Robin is an orphan, who was rescued by an English professor after his mother dies of cholera in Canton, China. He’s brought to England and raised with a strong background in various languages, in order to prepare him for schooling at Oxford. He’s smart, but relatively isolated, and when he finally arrives at Babel, he’s pleased to discover that his cohort involves a Muslim Indian man, a Black woman, and a white English woman with whom he develops a close bond rather quickly. The story gave me some The Secret History vibes with the level of foreshadowing and the way that the four characters create an insulated bond between themselves and no other characters around them.

However, over the years of their schooling, cracks begin to develop in their cohort. The story is a scathing indictment of colonialism and the British Empire especially. It talks about the mental gymnastics that are used to uphold colonialism within the empire, and how it is justified by the English people, as well as the foreign-born people who were raised in England, and the cognitive dissonance that they experience as they awaken to what is actually going on and the structures that they are working to uphold, whether intentionally or not. 

It was intriguing to watch the differences between Robin and his closest friend, Ramy, who are both in similar situations but are at vastly different places in their journey of decolonization, and how their journeys differ. It was also fascinating to see how each person finds a solution that is unique to their own values and ideals, even as each of the people involved are forced to become morally gray because of the situation that they are placed in. In particular, one of the characters, who is born to privilege, struggles to understand what the issue is, even as the other characters consistently attempt to explain their own struggles, which are always dismissed. 

The concept of languages and how translation can never accurately convey the full meaning of a word into another language was so fascinating to me. In addition, the story focuses on the roots of language and where words come from. I never realized how many words stem from other languages and have shared roots, even from such varied languages that I’d never have expected it. The magic system in this story requires users to live, breathe, and dream in the languages that they use, ultimately leading to the need for native speakers of multiple languages that have less crossover, creating an increased demand for people from ever-further corners of the globe, while simultaneously devaluing these very same people that they need so much. 

Racism played a huge role in the story, and parts of it were so difficult to read, especially since it made me realize that while our world has come so far, our views on race and cultures have changed so very little. The very same kind of racism that looms large in this story has hung around and stayed the same in our society, nearly 200 years later. The ending left me shocked and distraught, since the characters ultimately felt so real. I was heartbroken at the events of this story, and I’m honestly hoping that the epilogue’s open-ended nature is leaving the door cracked for a sequel, where we get to see what happens next in this wondrous and fascinating story, because I’m not quite ready to let go. 

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 15

10 replies »

  1. Your review clued me in to what I know I can expect from this author (I’ve read “The Poppy War Trilogy”), and I’m glad it’s pretty much the same thing, but I’m curious enough to read how Kuang narrates another moment in human history. I hope to read this book very soon! Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

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