Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller from the author of The Poppy War
“Absolutely phenomenal. One of the most brilliant, razor-sharp books I've had the pleasure of reading that isn't just an alternative fantastical history, but an interrogative one; one that grabs colonial history and the Industrial Revolution, turns it over, and shakes it out.” -- Shannon Chakraborty, bestselling author of The City of Brass
From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell 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.
Babel is 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 its knowledge 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?
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
We were awestruck by this stunning historical fantasy set in Victorian England. Young Robin Swift has such an innate gift for language that he’s being groomed by the British Crown to become a translator—and the stakes are high, as the meanings of words create a magical power that can be wielded to run a worldwide empire. But Robin soon discovers an underground network of linguists trying to undo the damage this magic has wrought. Author R. F. Kuang weaves fantasy and history together into an intricate story of love, loss, friendship, and family, all while exploring the complexities of language, culture, and colonialism. Narrator Chris Lew Kum Hoi brilliantly portrays Robin, while Billie Fulford-Brown chimes in to delightfully narrate the book’s many asides explaining linguistics and history. Engaging and poignant, Babel uses brilliant fantasy world-building to grapple with real events.
Kuang (the Poppy War trilogy) underwhelms with a didactic, unsubtle take on dark academia and imperialism. After the unnamed protagonist's mother dies in 1830s Canton, he dubs himself Robin Swift at the urging of professor Richard Lovell, an Oxford sinologist who tutors Mandarin-speaking Robin to become a student at Babel, Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation. Robin falls in love with Oxford and his cohort: witty Calcutta-born Ramiz Rafi Mirza; secretive Haitian-born Victorie Desgraves; and self-righteous Brighton-born Letitia Price. Together they learn the magical process of capturing in silver the linguistic nuances lost in translation—and along the way uncover the process's ties to imperialism. This brilliant, ambitious concept falters in execution, reading more like a postcolonial social history than a proper novel. The narrative is frequently interrupted by lectures on why imperialism is bad, not trusting the reader or the plot itself enough to know that this message will be clear from the events as they unfold. Kuang assumes an audience that disagrees with her, and the result keeps readers who are already aware of the evils of racism and empire at arm's length. The characters, meanwhile, often feel dubiously motivated. Readers will be drawn in by the fascinating, linguistic magic system and righteous stance, but many will come away frustrated.
I have been telling people about this book since before I even finished it. It is absolutely incredible, heart breaking, endearing, earth shattering. I cannot say enough about it. The author has captured the intended purpose so well, the ending brought me to tears and is a mirror of our world today. I cannot say enough about this piece. I read it online and I will be getting a hard copy so I may keep it forever. Thank you
Thank you for your review. You took the words out of my mouth and articulated them better than I could have.
An Interesting Essay, Not a Compelling Novel
R.F. Kuang’s Babel revels in the depth of its details. The richness of language is explored to dizzying depths within its magic system (silver-work), broad social and economic trends are deftly dissected, and the horrors of colonialism (and they are horrors) are shown to the reader with cold clarity. After finishing Babel, I had a deeper understanding of peak British colonialsim, with the fictional characters serving as firm grounding that gave image and texture to what I previously had only read in textbooks (and then only as an adult, as my public education didn’t cover colonialism at all).
However, Babel is not a novel in the normal sense of the word. Its characters, whether good or evil, are solely and wholly defined by their reaction to colonial society. Some support it, others fight against it, and most are silently complict, but that is the entirety of who these characters are. Details are only added to make sure every character archetype is present: the enslaved or indentured, the lone minority in power that asks students to tough it out, the wicked elite that believes anyone who isn’t them isn’t human. Characters far more often react to events than instigate them, and what few personality traits they have are subsumed by their race, sex, and socioeconomic class
Maybe that’s the point of Babel. There is a pervasive sense in the novel that the system perpetuates itself, that everyone is simply trapped within it. And that makes for an interesting essay. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it makes a compelling novel. The characters are too ethereal, too focused on serving their roles in the story, to properly emphathize with or root for. This is a morality play wrapped in the guise of a fantasy novel, and it sorely lacks the nuance and complexity of well written characters with agency to change the plot.