◐ Book Name: Babel
◐ Author: R.F. Kuang
◐ Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
◐ Pages: 545
◐ Synopsis (Goodreads):
An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
- 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.
Recommended for fans of Susanna Clarke and Dickens, fantasy set in a real world, anyone looking for a well-written story with a diverse cast, found family, friends-to-enemies tropes
death, murder, violence, colonialism, racism, discrimination
◐ Review: 5/5 ⭐
This was yet another book I began with no prior knowledge or expectations, except from a friend who told me I would like it. How right he was. I read Babel in two days, and after I closed it for the final time, I had no desire to pick up another book for a few days.
Oftentimes, books are either character-driven or plot-driven; rarely does a book do both well, yet R.F. Kuang succeeded in this historical fantasy novel. While Robin is the main character, his three companions are equally multilayered and interesting in their own unique ways. That isn’t to say that I liked all of them, but I could understand their perspectives, and how they came to make the decisions they did. The only one-sided characters tended to be the white men in authority, including Robin’s guardian.
I enjoyed the realistic history of the book, despite being set in an alternative history of magic. There were footnotes throughout the book that lended to the feeling of events that actually happened. Kuang nods to several intellectual giants as she describes the world of translators in Babel, philosophising over language and communication.
Meanwhile, the social issues tackled in the narrative remain relevant to this day: feelings of displacement in foreigners living in a primarily white society, of not quite belonging either to their adopted country or their home country. Such issues became even more acute in the past years of COVID-19, even 9-11, as the sensation of Otherness pushed its way to the forefront of many and exposed the discrimination faced western countries. The feeling of belonging and the deeply human need for it is well explored here.
I don’t typically enjoy books that are this heavy-handed with their social commentary, but here, it actually serves the narrative and plot, so it can hardly be avoided.
This book holds multiple layers that a review like this can’t begin to delve into. What I will touch on is the concept of translation and communication that is so central to this novel. It is something I have thought on often in the past, and I loved the book’s take on it.
At its core, the book is about people and their relationships. To build a relationship, communication is crucial. Yet the limitations of language, even a mutually spoken one, often hinders true understanding. Adding an element of translation to that mix complicates an already complex dilemma, and at every stage looms the possibility of breakdown.
This then ties in with the Otherness presented throughout this book, which focused on being a minority, but I think could apply to even those who are the “same.” Because in all the ways Robin and his friends are similar, they are also vastly different from each other, hence misunderstandings that arise and threaten to tear them apart.
I could keep going, but I’ll spare you. This book had pretty much everything I could want in a book: intellectual, emotional, strong and diverse characters, an engaging plot, and themes I could spend days analysing. I would read this book again and again.
A lie was not a lie if it was never uttered; questions that were never asked did not need answers. They would both remain perfectly content to linger in the liminal, endless space between truth and denial.
In the years to come, Robin would return so many times to this night. He was forever astonished by its mysterious alchemy, by how easily two badly socialized, restrictively raised strangers had transformed into kindred spirits in the span of minutes.
By the tine they’d finished their tea, they were almost in love with each other–not quite yet, because true love took time and memories, but as close to love as first impressions could take them.
It should have been distressing. In truth, though, Robin found it was actually quite easy to put up with any degree of social unrest, as long as one got used to looking away.
If only one could engrave entire memories in silver … to be manifested again and again for years to come–not the cruel contortion of the daguerrotype, but a pure and impossible distillation of emotions and sensations. For simple ink on paper was not enough to describe this golden afternoon: the warmth of uncomplicated friendship, all fights forgotten, all sins forgiven; the sunlight melting away the memory of the classroom chill; the sticky taste of lemons on their tongues and their startled, delighted relief.
Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rape a desperate attempt to breath.
Nice comes from the Latin word for “stupid.” … We do not want to be nice.
I’d been told time and time again how awful things were. It took witnessing it happening in person, for my to realize all the abstractions were real. And even then I tried my very hardest to look away. It’s hard to accept what you don’t want to see.
Violence shows them how much we’re willing to give up. … Violence is the only language they understand, because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock.
Justice is exhausting.
He hoped. He hoped until hope became its own form of torture. They original meaning of hope was “to desire,” and [he] wanted with every ounce of his being a world that no longer was.
But it was so hard to look at her now and not see a friend. How could you love someone who had hurt you so badly?
“It’s so odd. … It’s like I’ve known you forever.”
“And that makes no sense … Because I’ve known you for less than a day, and yet..”
“I think … it’s because when I speak, you listen.”
“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glipse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”