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.

4.5 star, adult

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

Overall Recommendation:

Piranesi was this disorienting and immersive read that took me through the many Vestibules and Hallways of a grand House Piranesi introduced us to. I had no idea what I was signing up for in the beginning but by the end, I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like this book. The journalistic entry style made every new discovery interesting, and I was so excited to see where Piranesi’s journey would take him.

I’ll be honest, Piranesi is not a book I would’ve picked out for myself from the synopsis or even the first few chapters. Full disclosure, I read this book for a book club I’m joining at my work. BUT, that being said, this was perhaps one of the better books I’ve read so far this year. And here is why.

We are immediately dropped into this strange and disorienting world, seeing it through the eyes of someone who refers to himself by no name except “Myself”. It’s only later that we realize his name, maybe, is Piranesi, or so he’s called by the only other living person in this world of many endless rooms, hallways, antechambers, etc. There are statues everywhere depicting all sorts of people, scenery and items. A raging sea washes below in tides in the lower halls of this House, while clouds move about in the upper halls that occasionally provide rain.

Written in journal entries by Piranesi, the information we glean about this world comes in pieces. This makes it less confusing in some ways – definitely no information overload – but it’s also a little slow in the beginning for that reason. However, I will say having this story written in journal entries is truly a highlight for the story. We discover things in real time along with Piranesi as we learn things are not as he originally understood the world to be. So in later sections, the anticipation of what would pop up in the next entry is practically palpable.

The writing itself presents in a dreamlike state. Piranesi’s voice is calm, detail oriented and descriptive. Yes, this may not be for everyone, especially for those who enjoy more conversational writing. But this quality was needed, in my opinion, to immerse us into this world that is nothing like our own. I felt like I was walking those Halls with him, seeing the birds fly above, catching that fish for food and drying seaweed for clothes. By the end of it, I felt a little sad that I would no longer be reading about this calm world and its interactions with Piranesi. That’s the sheer beauty of Clarke’s writing that evoked such a 180 turn of emotion in me. I will say I was quite jaded at the beginning, and not the least bit annoyed, that this book was so wordy and full of descriptive pages. Oh how everything clearly changed!

Aside from the writing, there is in fact a plot in here. I know, right? But immediately after a couple of meetings with the “Other” as Piranesi calls him, there definitely seemed to be more information out in this World than what we were understanding from Piranesi’s POV. The mystery surrounding our gap in knowledge was intriguing, although I guessed quite early on what may be the case. I don’t think it’s a mystery meant to be unknowable to us, the reader. It’s seeing how Piranesi would have to reconcile with the changes in his own world perception that is highly interesting. And of course, what would be the ultimate outcome upon reaching such a conclusion about the World?

I’ve been raving so many positive things about this book so far, but the thing that sticks out the most is how much I adore Piranesi as a character. He’s such a pure and innocent soul, yet he also feels realistic even though none of us are really like that. What makes or breaks a book for me is whether your narrator is someone you can stand because we see the world through their eyes. And oh boy, it was truly a wonder to see the world through Piranesi’s eyes.

To conclude, I don’t think this is everyone’s cup of tea, but I didn’t think it was going to be a book for me either in the beginning. This is so far out of the norm of my reading genres, yet I’m so profoundly happy that I got to immerse myself in Piranesi’s story. All the accolades are very well deserved, and I encourage you to give this a shot even if the synopsis sounds like nothing you have ever read or wanted to read before. It may just change your perspective.

3.5 star, YA

ARC Review: A Thousand Heartbeats by Kiera Cass

“Love has a sound. It sounds like a thousand heartbeats happening at the same time.”

Princess Annika has lived a life of comfort—but no amount of luxuries can change the fact that her life isn’t her own to control. The king, once her loving father, has gone cold, and Annika will soon be forced into a loveless marriage for political gain.

Miles away, small comforts are few and far between for Lennox. He has devoted his life to the Dahrainian army, hoping to one day help them reclaim the throne that was stolen from them. For Lennox, the idea of love is merely a distraction—nothing will stand in the way of fighting for his people.

But when love, against all odds, finds them both, they are bound by its call. They can’t possibly be together—but the irresistible thrum of a thousand heartbeats won’t let them stay apart. 

Kiera Cass brings her signature sparkling romance to this beautiful story of star-crossed lovers and long-held secrets.

Overall Recommendation:

A Thousand Heartbeats presents itself as a grand romance and it truly does deliver in that aspect, although I personally believe the enemies-to-lovers trope was too rushed to fully satisfy the perfect angst that was set in the beginning. The fantasy half was subpar with very little originality besides the entangled history between the characters’ two kingdoms. If you come at this as a romance with some fantasy, I guarantee this will be a fun read. If you want more of a fantasy, be warned this will probably not meet your expectations.

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