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.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.
Oh Babel, my most hyped book of 2022. There were no let downs here, only an overwhelming build of dark academia intensity until that incredible incredible finale. For any dark academia fans, this is an absolute must read.
I write this review long after I initially read the book, and I read the book amidst a Covid fever, so my recollection of the plot itself is lacking. Yet while I don’t remember details, I can say that this is truly a story that builds and builds, with no intention of every letting the reader go. Babel is set in an alt-history Britain in the years upcoming to the Opium Wars, and Oxford has slowly learned that to keep expanding their translation-fueled dominance over the country, and the rest of the world, new languages must be brought in. And thus begins a colonization of a different sort, where a country and culture’s own language is used against them in subjugation, fueled by children taken old enough to remember their first life, and young enough to never wish to return.
Or at least, that’s Oxford’s goal. In truth, our main cast of Robin, of Chinese descent, Ramiz, of Indian descent, Victoire, Haitian Creole, are not as willing to let go of their past lives as expected. One of the strongest themes, naturally, in this book is colonization in every form of the word, but the one that resonated with me the most as a 2nd-gen Chinese-American was the experience of navigating a country and culture that you can’t quite call your own, amongst people who look nothing like you. Because while their classes at Oxford are ripe with diversity, Robin and his cohort must still navigate the larger world, and that world isn’t always friendly.
I must admit, the only RF Kuang work I read was Poppy War, about a month or two after publication. I don’t have the greatest recollection of the book, aside from Rin’s everburning rage (good) and frustratingly modern-feeling writing (bad). Kuang has leveled up since. It makes sense that a story about the particular usage of words would have such rich, academically oriented prose to match. Kuang is able to build up the emotions, in particular Robin’s growing rage, in such a slow-burning, subtle way that when certain plot events happen and characters begin to snap, it’s the only logical conclusion.
I often gripe that books marketed with the Dark Academia label doesn’t have enough focus on the academia side (no, cramming to pass a highschool class doesn’t count). For me, Dark Academia has to have an emphasis on the academic field of choice. It’s about the unhealthy hyperfocus on a chosen specialty, the slow spiral to insanity and the ever-growing disconnect from reality in pursuit of that One Topic. In Babel, that looming rabbit hole descent is ever-present and Kuang truly makes it known. Especially in the first half where the academic naivety was yet to be broken, the character’s hyperfocus on the translation, on their language of choice, was one of my favorite parts to read. Also a shoutout to the heavy useage of footnotes, always a fan.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Is it perfect? No. Kuang tends to be heavy handed at ensuring the messaging of certain themes gets across, but this is perhaps the one time it works without ruining the story. But overall, the usage of translation as a magic system, the unrelenting dissection of English colonialism, and the emotional rollercoaster Babel will take you on makes it truly a masterpiece.
r/Fantasy 2022-23 Bingo Squares:
- Historical SFF
- Standalone (hard mode)
- Revolutions and Rebellions
- Author Uses Initial
- Published in 2022
- BIPOC Author
- Features Biological Family Ties