R.F Kuang has been a very popular author in the book community for years now since she wrote The Poppy War trilogy – many friends have read it and absolutely loved it. Although The Poppy War wasn’t a book I wanted to pick up, Babel quickly took the community by storm the second it was announced and I couldn’t escape this book myself because of the hype.
I tried really hard to keep my expectations neutral – I knew little about the book going in other than it was a dark academic fantasy read and that it involved languages. I’m not impartial to the dark academia trend and I’ve had a massive hobby of learning languages since I was in high school so it sounded super intriguing and I got myself a copy. To say I was disappointed in this book…may be a slight understatement. Here’s my review ~
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?
In Babel, we follow Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton who is taken in by a mysterious white old man, a professor at Oxford, who begins to train him to join Oxford’s Translation Institute (also called Babel). In this world, Babel is esteemed as it harbors students and graduates who learn the art of silver-working. This is an intricate magic system that I loved learning about and I wish we’d gotten more content on its history and how it worked in this urban historical fantasy setting of the 1800s. Silver-working isn’t a skill or magical power that anyone can just use, but rather one that has to be studied and practiced through multiple languages that require full fluency. Robin is, what you could say, more special, as he’s one of three people at the institute that can fluently speak, read and write Mandarin.
As he joins the institute, he becomes quite close with his class as they develop a friendship based on their shared experiences, but it’s not always easy as they must navigate the racism, colonialist attitudes and selfish wants of the academics looking to attain power no matter the cost.
This book wasn’t just an interesting fantasy novel but was a political statement that really drove home the kind of suffering people had to go through as a result of the British Empire’s expansion and colonialism in the 1800s. It felt extremely political in many parts of the books, which was good and bad in some ways. I found it interesting to get an insight into the politics but was also often confused, because as Australian, I know little about the political landscape of Britain. As I read, I sometimes had to google things because how was I supposed to know who the Torries are and which party did they align with?
Robin’s inner conflict as his heritage battled against his British upbringing with the professor was the most heartbreaking, yet relatable experience as a mixed asian person myself, but part of that also made him quite unlikeable as his actions just didn’t always make sense.
“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”R.F Kuang, Babel
Although I did enjoy the writing and Kaung’s prose throughout the book, and there are many instances of great history and linguistic lessons, I felt like this book had so much more potential as it kind of bored me. Robin and his classmates spend half of the book studying for exams and being students, learning languages, their semantics and applications to silver-working but we never got beyond that as he mostly spent time at Oxford and all the studying got so boring for me.
I also wish that Kuang had gone beyond what’s historically accurate and ingrained silver-working more into the world’s society than the foundational levels explained. It often felt so one-sided that majority of the book was from Robin’s point of view, as I would’ve loved to have read from more perspectives that really put this world and its magic system in use, in 3D if you will.
There was certainly complexity in the political and societal landscape and I would simply ask for more. More depth, more character development from the side characters; most of whom I really liked and enjoyed. The reality is, because the middle of the book felt like such a slog to get through as Robin just studied and we got thesis-like paragraphs on the etymology of words, I lost motivation and the ended also quite disappointed me. Just as I was hoping we would get action and redemption from certain characters, it all went out the window with a cliche that slots right into the real world history of Britain.
Not to say that this book was all a negative experience for me as there were many moments that captured my attention and broke my heart as I read the realities of colonization and was physically shocked at the racist remarks I would’ve also endured, had I been alive at the time.
I simply wanted and expected a bit more. Despite that, I’d recommend anyone to read this book, purely for its powerful historical accuracy and significance to understand how bad Britain’s Imperial expansion kind of was at that time and to get a taste of this incredibly interesting magic system that I wish I knew more about. I’ll definitely be reading Kuang’s future books!
Until next time,