Book Review

Babel – R. F. Kuang

Book Title: Babel


Author:  R. F. Kuang

Goodreads Link:

Release Date:  08/23/22

Star Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Impressive and ambitious.

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. – Goodreads

Ms. Kuang is a young author like no other. She writes books that are sure to be categorized as modern classics. In this book, she tackles academia, colonization and the intricacies of language with a deft skill while never getting bogged down. This is not a little book either, but it feels like it flies by. I’m not sure what to say about it, it has been widely acclaimed and it absolutely deserves the hype.

It reminds me a great deal of Les Miserables. Young people who rebel against the society that they have been forced into, but she takes it a step further by showing how different classes/groups of people interact with that society and how it informs their viewpoint. She is so nuanced. Ultimately, this is a hard one to review, if only because its scope is so very wide I have trouble articulating how I feel about it. Don’t let the size discourage you, it really is as good as everyone is telling you it is.


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