Review: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R. F. Kuang

  • Title: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Archane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
  • Author: R. F. Kuang
  • Genre: historical fantasy
  • Intended audience: adult
  • Format read: physical book
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager
  • Pub date: August 23, 2022
  • Content warnings: violence, racism (anti-Asian and anti-Black), death, murder, gun violence, child abuse, mentions of slavery, colonialism and colonization, sexism, suicide, classism
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

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?

Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.

An image of blue flowers on a white background.

I have to admit, I feel almost a little silly writing a review for this book. It is (rightly) one of the most celebrated releases of this year, and has been and will be reviewed many times over. I am not an OwnVoices reviewer, I am not a translator, I do not particularly know if I have anything to be said that has not already been said better and by dozens of others. That being said, I simply couldn’t not write a review of Babel. It truly is a masterpiece.

If I do have a unique perspective, it’s that I was pretty skeptical going in. Even though I heard everyone talk so highly about Babel, I had absolutely no plans to read it. I don’t do fantasy, and I don’t do long books. I really just assumed it was not for me. However, as soon as I started reading I very quickly discovered that was not the case. I was expecting to be dragged kicking and screaming through tedious exposition. Instead, I was immediately drawn in by Robin’s story.

We begin in Robin’s childhood. When his mother and the rest of his family fall victim to cholera, the unknown Professor Lovell sweeps Robin away to his home in England, where Robin spends the next decade isolated, focused on studying Latin and Greek. Until one day, Professor Lovell deems it time for him to begin at the Babel translation institute at Oxford. The remainder of the book follows Robin’s years at Oxford. His newfound family and sense of purpose that translation brings him, while underneath rests the truth that it all depends on colonialism and exploitation of his homeland.

Babel is definitely the most thoughtful and engaging piece on colonialism I have read in a long time. It gets to the heart of what colonialism truly is, revealing the horrors underneath. It is about the ongoing, internal struggle of finding a place you feel you belong, where that belonging is conditional on upholding colonial power.

It is also a book about translation, the power of language, the family you are born with, and the family you find. It’s about academia and friendship and anger and hope. And sometimes it’s about scones. (For the record, Robin is wrong: sultana scones are delicious).

For me, the interesting and intelligent discussions Kuang digs into is what elevates this book to five stars. However, the reason they are able to enhance the novel in the first place is because the standard necessities of storytelling are all there and done spectacularly. Despite the size, Babel is a page turner in every sense of the word. The plot moves swiftly, hooking the reader in all the right places. The prose is exceptional as well, written in a distinctive voice that is perfect for the academic setting.

Then, of course, there is the characterization. While Babel primarily follows Robin, we also get glimpses into the lives of his three Babel classmates, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty. Each of them has their own unique story to tell. They are all inherently flawed in their own ways, making them such engaging characters to read. The same way they constantly argue but can’t help loving one another, I think you will be unable to help loving them (although maybe some more than others). I always understood the actions of every character, even when I did not think they were making the right choice.

I really liked how Kuang showed each of them responding in different ways to the same events, even when they all had the same shared goal or value. Importantly, they are never judged by the narrative for the approaches they take. Because in the end, all we can do is react in the best way we know possible given what we know. At the end of the book, we have two characters who choose diametrically opposed paths, each of them equally valid, and perhaps equally tragic.

In the end, I cannot recommend Babel enough. It is a thoughtful, character-driven books with beautiful prose. It is definitely a masterpiece for Kuang, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

4 thoughts on “Review: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R. F. Kuang

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