Title: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
Author: R. F. Kuang
Published: August 23rd, 2022 (Harper Voyager)
Synopsis: 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.
Thank you to HCC Frenzy, Harper Collins Canada, and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
After he loses his entire family during a cholera epidemic in Canton, Robin Swift is brought to London by Professor Lovell and trained to be fluent in many languages in preparation for the day he will join Oxford’s prestigious Royal Institution of Translation, better known as Babel. As the center of the magical art of silver-working, Babel is at the heart of the British Empire’s power. But though Robin loves Oxford and his studies there, he begins to realize that all this pursuit of knowledge will inevitably be used in the service of the Empire, against his own homeland of China that he left so many years ago. Things come to a head when Britain plans to wage an unjust war with China and Robin must decide how far he is willing to go to bring down Babel and if violence is necessary to fight back against this corrupt and powerful institution.
“Language was always the companion of empire, and as such, together they begin, grow, and flourish. And later, together, they fall.”
I’ve had my eye on this book for quite some time, and there’s been so much hype around it too. I haven’t read The Poppy Wars yet, but this sounded like something not to miss this summer. The timing to pick up this book could not have been more perfect for me, because much of it is set in Oxford where I actually visited literally last month, so I could visualize the buildings and streets described and follow along with the places Robin goes to – the ones that are real anyway. Babel is set in an alternative fantasy version of Oxford in a world where the art of silver-working, channeling the meaning of words through translation to magical effect, has not only taken over daily life in England, but has made the British Empire powerful beyond imagination. I’ll settle for calling this a fantastic work of art which is the best I could come up with because this book had me lost for words for several hours after I finished it, much less ones that would do it full justice. I myself speak multiple languages and I found the whole discussion of translation across languages and cultures and how the meanings of words change in the process to be not only fascinating but quite relatable.
“But what is the opposite of fidelity?…Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?”
The world building was my favorite part and I loved the author’s descriptions of this Oxford of a fantasy world. Silver-working was extremely intriguing and the book went into so much detail about the whole process and the importance that translation has to it. The magic system such as it was, was described in such depth and I really enjoyed it – few books take the time to do so, and even fewer standalones. What I found most interesting however, was that despite this being a fantasy novel, the story at the heart of it wasn’t about the magic, but the effect it had on society, from silver worked enhancements to machines taking away the jobs of the working class, colonization and the slave trade, identities and ethnicities, racism and the complicated politics behind it all, with a lot of true history woven in, posing some thought provoking questions on morality to the reader. It has been a very long time since I came across a fantasy novel with such a complex plot and I would have binge read it had it not been so long.
The characters – I didn’t expect to like them as much as they did. The book is largely told from Robin’s perspective, and once at Oxford, he meets the other members of his cohort: Ramy, Victoire and Letty, who do get a couple of interludes as the story progresses. Robin’s character development and his arc were amazing, and I’m really impressed at how much the author had managed to fit in from this angle – and in so much detail – in a book that’s not even 600 pages. And the best part of it was that none of it ever felt forced – the events just flowed and Robin’s every reaction was natural, making him an easy character to sympathize with and connect to. His three friends, despite not having POVs, were equally significant figures in the plot, each with distinct personalities and from varied backgrounds which leads to them viewing the truth behind Babel from very different perspectives. I was equally invested in all four characters, and given that this is a standalone, that’s saying a lot.
This is usually the point in my reviews where I start getting into what I didn’t like about the book, but with this one, I’m drawing a complete blank. I suppose the pacing was kind of slow, but I was so caught up in the story that I barely even noticed it – I was just hoping the book wouldn’t end anytime soon because it was absolutely riveting.
After reading this book, The Poppy Wars has just moved to the top of my backlist! I can’t wait to read it and any future books by this author are sure to be on my TBR as well. Though this is a fantasy novel, it’s also dark academia and the themes discussed within will be of interest to readers of any genre. Babel is undoubtedly one of the finest standalone novels I’ve ever read. If there’s one book you read this year, make it Babel – I cannot recommend this book enough!
Babel releases on August 23rd, 2022.
Do you plan to read this book? Let me know in the comments below!
All quotes in this review were taken from an advance reader’s edition and may differ from the final version of the book.