Book Review: Babel

Sometimes, real-life events shake up your to-be-read stack. I’ve been aware of Babel since it rocked the bestseller lists in 2022 – no small feat for a fantasy novel, let me tell you. I was planning on getting around to it eventually. When I joined my local library’s reading challenge, one of the categories was a book by an author scheduled to speak in-town. And, wouldn’t you know it, there was R.F. Kuang, author of Babel.

Reading this book left me with the distinct impression I was reading a future classic which will be discussed in book clubs for years to come.

The Basics:

Title: Babel (or, The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution)
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genre: Alternate History, Fantasy, Drama
Published: Harper-Collins, 2022

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Babel is set in a world nearly identical to our own, with one significant difference: silver magically captures the inherent magic of language. It harnesses the power of distorted or enhanced meaning between subtly different words in different languages. When engraved on silver and spoken by fluent speakers of both languages (you must deeply understand a language to make use of it, of course), words literally shape the world. How’s that for an extended metaphor?

In this world, it is the 1830s and the sun never sets on the British Empire. They dominate the silver trade and run the world’s premier translation center at Oxford university. Robin Swift is a young Chinese immigrant, plucked from a life of poverty as an orphan in Canton and raised by a prominent Oxford linguist. He is reared sheltered, and bookish. Every influence in his life points him toward the university. When he comes of age, he joins the translation department and his horizons explode. He wants for nothing. He spends his days with like-minded peers from every (oppressed) corner of the empire, learning new languages and discussing the nuances of literature and translation.

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Robin’s privileged life begins to weigh on him. The opulence of empire is only possible through the exploitation of enslaved peoples, unbalanced trade deals, and by outcompeting domestic industry, one magic translation at a time. Robin and his friends wrestle with their complicity in perpetuating this system even as it fulfills their personal dreams. Can they live in both worlds? Can they change the system from the inside… or will the powerful forces of empire only respond to overt resistance?

You Will Love This Book If…

This book is so richly described and well-researched that I had to remind myself that I was reading a fantasy, not historical fiction. Kuang’s prose is a beautiful, poetic homage to the voice of the Victorian classics. You can hear the bells ringing and feel the ancient cobblestones beneath your feet.

Each character is lovingly, painstakingly crafted. Sympathetic characters will surprise and enrage you. Villains will garner your sympathy. Each Oxfordian is a well-rounded, living, breathing character who relates uniquely to the Empire, the university, and their cohort. It is no small feat to juggle a cast this large, yet present each character in a way that is 100% authentic to their development on the page. We explore every level of their world – from empire to individual friendships – from multiple nuanced perspectives. As they explore the truth of colonialism, those subtle differences threaten bonds which once seemed unbreakable.

Babel is unflinchingly poignant. Its not preachy, but its cross-examination of the way Robin and friends benefit from oppressive systems certainly rhymes with our world today. If the average fantasy adventure leaves you wanting more substance, more honest human experience, then run to your library/bookstore/app/bookish friend’s house and give Babel a chance.

Where Can You Learn More?

If you’re into historical context, follow this internet rabbit hole. Kuang’s site points readers to her Substack. I recently attended an event where she spoke at my local library. Kuang was a witty, poignant speaker. You can view a replay of that lecture here, or, here.

Happy reading, folks.

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