5 star

Review: Babel by R. F. Kuang

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a historical fantasy epic that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British Empire

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 was on my anticipated reads about a year ago, and two friends have highly recommended it to me since then, saying that I would for sure love it. Were they correct? I mean, obviously so.

Babel is a historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical. If you know anything about the biblical Tower of Babel, you already know a lot about this book. Babel takes place around the 1830s, following a young Robin Swift, who is brought from Canton to “Babel” tower at Oxford, taking over Latin, Ancient Greek, and Mandarin classes in his translational studies. This is of course, all happening at the height of the power of the British empire, who have amassed the world’s silver supply for their silver-working, which enhances the might of the empire to extraordinary heights. Robin eventually finds himself caught at odds between the colonialist goals of the British empire and his own conscience and those who oppose it.

I have so much I want to exclaim about this book, but I will start first with the characters. The characters and their relationships with each other were very well-developed considering this is also a part fantasy and the world is built around the historical Oxford as well. In terms of the university life vibes, it really reminded me of Ninth House in the way it was all set-up, which I also really enjoyed and rated at 5 stars. There were many detestable characters, but it felt like no character was there for no reason and although they came from all sorts of different backgrounds, somehow it felt like they were all connected, which I feel like is part of the whole “translation magic” in its own right.

The “magic.” I may not be a linguist or anything like that by trade, but I certainly love learning my languages. Silver-working essentially takes advantage of the meanings that are “lost in translation” between languages and manifests them through the silver to enhance things in the real world. As someone who has learned Latin and Mandarin, and even some Ancient Greek, this book really spoke to me on many levels. But that bias aside, Kuang’s work in explaining all the languages and providing all the context for understanding exactly how this power works was excellent, and this world-building was some of the best I have read recently.

This book was certainly a bit heavier than I expected compared to what I was expecting from the advertised premise. That being said, my bias for the world-building with a topic I love really distorts how I feel about what I wanted in this book, so take that with a grain of salt. I really wanted more of the world, and more of the exploration of linguistics and cross-language studies. However, ultimately this book is more about colonialism and the everlasting fight between those with privilege and power and those without. If that kind of political intrigue is not your cup of tea, you may want to avoid this book. However, if you are at all interested in the whole language thing and especially in translation like I am, it may honestly be worth it just to learn all about that. It was completely fascinating and enthralling and I definitely couldn’t put it down.

In terms of the plot, it was all really set up, and all the moral and ethical dilemmas that arose were excellently crafted and executed. Even as a third-party omniscient, it was impossible to swim through the murky murky waters of when you pass a line from moral to immoral, or from a good cause to revenge. That all being said, the plot was fairly predictable at many points, and there weren’t that many surprising twists. But this may be coming from a thriller/mystery-reader perspective, so take that for what you will. It really didn’t detract from the moment of when everything came to pass anyway, and there was a lot of heavy foreshadowing right from the beginning. Overall, just an excellent read that really made me think a lot, yet still a story I really got to immerse myself in and enjoy. I highly recommend this one.

Overall Recommendations

Babel follows a young Robin Swift as he makes his way from being orphaned in Canton to being part of the most prestigious faculty at Oxford handling the source of might of the British empire—silver-working. This allows meanings lost in translation to be harvested and manifested by the silver by using words in different languages to capture them. Soon it becomes clear that the British empire must expand ever outward, and it seems like their power knows no ends. However, there are certainly reasons why there are those opposed, and even the young students at Oxford may not be sheltered forever in their gilded tower…this is an excellent historical fiction with just a touch of the fantastical, and I highly recommend it.


1 thought on “Review: Babel by R. F. Kuang”

  1. Fantastic review! Kuang writes books that I struggle to review so I still haven’t written my review for the book yet but I also loved it. The magic was awesome and the characters!!! This one hit so hard in the feels, lol.


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