Book Review : BABEL

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : BABELBabel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager on August 23rd 2022
Pages: 560
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Source: NetGalley

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.


Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (or Babel for short), is very much the novel that R.F. Kuang was born to write. Compiling her background as a translator, a student at Oxford, and her own studies on diaspora, as well as her plethora of personal experiences, Babel is an important work that doesn’t shy away from the subjects of colonialism, racism, sexism, and other moral conflicts that plague the characters. The world of Babel, as well as the struggles of the students, feel so real that it’s honestly hard to view this novel as fictional, as it is clear that so much of the author’s heart and own experiences went into the making of this novel.


However, it is clear that at least in some respects, Babel is fictional, and even fantastical. This alternate nineteenth century world is unlike our own past in that everything is run on silver with magical properties inscribed on them by talented and skilled translators, who are able to power these silver bars with “match pairs” in separate languages. These match-pairs are what give the silver bars magical properties, allowing for more advanced societies, at least in the case of those countries that can afford them. 


The main character, Robin Swift, was born in one of these not so fortunate countries, China. Orphaned, he’s taken under the wing of a Professor Lovell, who doesn’t have a kind bone in his body, and trained in the arts of language. When Robin comes of age, and has mastered English, Greek, and Latin, he is whisked off to the Translation Institute at Oxford, better known as the tower of Babel. There, Robin is introduced to his fellow classmates, all minorities of a sort, and they form a found family, as they struggle to find their places in a world that doesn’t really want them, but needs them for their linguistic abilities. 


Soon Robin’s loyalties, as well as his morality, are put to the test. He struggles to reconcile that he benefits from a system that disparages and ruins his home country without any hesitation. Kuang does an excellent job of displaying not only Robin’s inner turmoil, but that of his cohort, and how all of their personal struggles are alike yet, also dissimilar. I really grew attached to all of these characters, their beliefs, and their plights. 


Not too surprisingly to anyone who has read Kuang’s other work, The Poppy War series, these characters certainly do suffer. Though often saddened by the events in Babel, I never cried while reading Babel, which is similar to my response to The Burning GodI think that I am always just too in awe of Kuang’s writing and how well she is able to pull off tragedy and despair I felt raw and depressed after reading Babel, but like I had read something very important.


Despite Babel obviously being a masterpiece, I wasn’t quite able to give Babel five stars. As someone who has always loved languages, and has taken a few throughout her education, I found that much of the linguistics and etymology in Babel was above my head. However, these explanations were still largely interesting to me, especially the etymology. Other times, though, I found them frustrating, especially when Robin was in the middle of a decision, and he stood there disassociating by thinking about words in other languages. Though this is probably a realistic coping mechanism for a student of translation, it truly made me want to scream. 


I also lamented that more time was not spent on the other members of Robin’s cohort, like Ramy, Letty, and especially Victoire. I think this was a detriment to Babel, as certain events would have had an even greater emotional impact if more time had been spent fleshing out these characters. The same is true of the characters belonging to the secret society of Hermes. I honestly could have read an entire novel based on these characters alone, and I honestly hope and pray Kuang will write a prequel to Babel detailing more about them.


Plus, I’d really just love to return to this world of Babel and Oxford, which came to feel like an, albeit problematic, home to me as well. I highly recommend this novel to fans of R.F. Kuang, who will surely delight in how much the author has honed her craft since her last works, to those who love language, and other readers who are keen to see the darker sides of not only magic, but our world. 


Book Review : Babel - Blogging with Dragons

Posted May 13, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy


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