Book Review: Babel

I have had The Poppy War (paid link) by R.F. Kuang sitting in my to-be-read pile for quite a while. But when one of my book clubs wanted to read the authors newest book, Babel (paid link), this ended up being my introduction to R.F. Kuang’s work. This novel has a longer version of the title, fully – Babel: or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. Babel won the Nebula award in 2022 for Best Novel.

I read this in hardcover.

Here is the blurb:

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. The tower and its students are the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver-working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as the arcane craft serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping 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?

This book was quite long, but I despite the time they take to read, I often become enthralled with epic fantasy series and other stories with intricate details that require an intimidating number of pages to tell. Robin’s story in Babel develops slowly as he comes to live in England and starts his studies at Oxford. Yet it never became dull for me. The historical setting and the novel magic that combines precious metal with linguistics and translation were fresh and engaging.

The characters were diverse and well-drawn and didn’t always get along, leading to conflicts that helped to drive the book into darker places. This isn’t ultimately a happy story, but it does reach a resolution by the end and is a stand-alone novel.

The most interesting parts of this book for me were how it expanded upon the wrongs of colonialism and then used the story to make a point hinted at in the full title and specifically stated in the blurb — is violence ultimately necessary to enact revolutionary changes in society? Will peaceful campaigns always fail if the changes they seek are too divisive to the current culture? I read this book over the summer and have still been thinking about the questions it posed and examples from real history. So far, this is one of the best books I’ve read in 2023.

Have you read Babel or one of R.F. Kuang’s other books (paid link)? Let me know in the comments (above)!

Find more of my reviews here.

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