Babel – by R. F. Kuang

Babel is one of those books that seem to be tailored to my personal likings. Language as a plot point? Check. Meaningful social commentary? Check. Well crafter worldbuilding, morally gray characters, dark academia that is dark in more than its aesthetic? Check, check, check. As soon as it was available, I had to get it and couldn’t put it down until the end.

Title: Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators Revolution

Author: R. F. Kuang

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date: 23rd August 2022

Genre: Fantasy Novel

Stand Alone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: 1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is taken as a ward and brought to London by professor Lovell, a mysterious British scholar who shows no affection to the kid, but is extremely invested in his education. After years of inflexible training, Robin joins the ranks of Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel. Far from being just a prestigious educational institution, Babel is the center of silver-working, that is to say the art of channeling the nuances of meaning that are lost in translation through the use of engraved silver bar, to create magical effects that have become a key resource for the British Empire. Here Robin soon realizes that his Chinese origins make him a precious asset, but at the same time mark him as an outsider in a deeply racist and elitist society. As the plot moves on, his loyalties grow more and more divided between Babel – that, despite everything, he still sees as his true home, where he found material comfort and bonded with his few friends – and the Hermes Society, a shadowy revolutionary group that is trying to enroll him. When Britain pursues a patently unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin is forced to face the implications of his allegiances and decide how much he’s willing to sacrifice.

Analysis: Set in Oxford in a fictional XIX Century, Babel aims at creating a scholarly vibe with its frequent digressions on academic topics and its use of hefty, deliberately pedantic footnotes. This is not to say, however, that the writing style is overall obscure or old-fashioned – quite the opposite: if Kuang’s prose has grown more mature since the times of The Poppy War, it also stays clear and accessible even as it ventures into erudite territories. Written in a subjective but slightly detached third person, the book sounds definitely more modern than its chosen setting, which may or may not be everyone’s preference, but surely helps it staying approachable and engaging.

The novel does a fantastic job creating a world that closely mirrors our own while also introducing a very unique magical system. Silver-working is presented as magical in nature and obviously charged with symbolism, but also very grounded and practical in its use. Not unlike Robin, we are divided between the fascination for its workings, that draw magical power from cultural differences and word associations, and the chilling realization of its effects on the world at large. Such a magical system is surely an appealing theme on its own, however it’s clearly meant to be much more than a fancy fantasy invention: the book is, in fact, an open and unapologetic reflection on colonialism and on the exploitation of foreigner lands and cultures by imperialistic powers that are ever-hungry for resources, and never willing to share their knowledge and privilege with those who made it possible.

All these themes are explored through Robin’s experience, and are intertwined with his personal development. Robin is a complex character, meant to be mostly sympathetic but even more fascinating for his flaws. At first we witness to his very human ambivalence, to his attachment to personal convenience despite his acknowledgement of the injustices it is based on and his drive to pursue higher ideals; later, as he grows bolder in his choices and resorts to extreme measures for greater justice, the purity of his motives is regularly questioned, since his idealism can’t be separated from his personal revenge, his noble goals from his burning rage – a theme very familiar to those who have read Kuang’s previous works . Another key theme for Robin is that of belonging: uprooted as a child, to the point his Chinese name isn’t ever mentioned in the novel, and treated as an outsider wherever he goes, our main character is on a perpetual quest for a place he can call home; this only deepens the complexity of his relation with Babel – a world that, for all its flaws, still gives him an illusion of acceptance, a sense of familiarity and comfort that goes beyond its merely material aspects and that it’s painful to give up.

The plot is slow – but absolutely not boring – in its first part; this allows us to get accustomed to the setting, and, just like Robin, develop an attachment for its scholarly atmosphere; it also dwells on the highs and lows of his social life at Oxford, fleshing out his friendships through bonding moments great and small, overall establishing the premises for everything that will follow. Moving on, events get more pressing and fast-paced; the lingering sense of nostalgia and the silent angst give way to a crescendo of dramatic choices, bonds developed in the embrace of cozy cameradie are painfully put to test.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Babel is a marvellous novel that puts the tropes of dark academia to their best use – that is to say, it doesn’t dwell in a self-pleased aestheticism, but truly explores the relationship between knowledge and other forms of power. If any criticism is due, perhaps it can be said it doesn’t seem to entirely trust its audience, occasionally over-explaining its message rather than leaving anything implied; as a lover of political SFF, it’s not something that bothers me, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. It should also be noted this is the kind of fantasy that, while beautifully inventive and engaging, does not really count as escapism, as all its flights of imagination are only meant to show us our own reality under a merciless light – which doesn’t make it very suitable as a comfort read, but even more of a treat for those craving food for thought.

Content Warning: Racism, sexism, bullying, death, violence, suicide.

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