StoryGraph Saturday: Babel

StoryGraph Saturday is a weekly thing where I randomly choose a book from my To Read pile on StoryGraph and show it off to both remind myself that it’s there and to show it to you in case you might find it interesting, too.

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
by R.F. Kuang
Fantasy/Historical Fantasy
560 pages

From The StoryGraph:

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 for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping 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?

I’ve heard a lot about R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, but the premise of it doesn’t really appeal to me. But I was perfectly happy to see what else this young author might write, and when Babel was announced it seemed like something that would be right up my street. When it came available for request via NetGalley, I asked for it– not even thinking I’d get a copy– and lo and behold, I got an eARC! The NetGalley description (probably not written by Kuang herself) states that Babel is, “a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell“, which is a bold claim to be making about a book by a twenty-five-year-old author.

But what does this mean? It means that before I get to Babel, I want to read The Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to see how Babel stacks up to them. The Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are generally regarded as contemporary masterpieces that I’ve been meaning to read anyway. So I suppose that means that there are three books for this StoryGraph Saturday.

9 thoughts on “StoryGraph Saturday: Babel

  1. Right? It makes me wonder if the copywriter was being deliberately provocative, or if they read the book and genuinely believed what they wrote. But I will read all three this spring/summer and report back.

  2. It was the cover that first drew me to this one, something about how it looked like an etching. The story, itself, also looks appealing. I have Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell sitting on my shelf waiting for me to try. I’ve heard how great it is, but the length keeps me pushing it aside for other things. One of these days I should just pull it down and start reading.

  3. I read about the concept before I ever saw a concept, but I do love the cover. I’ve seen a couple of versions of it; I assume one is the US version, and the other is the UK. They’re both pretty great for a change (the UK covers are usually better than the US versions, I think…). I tried Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell several years back and didn’t finish it, but I keep hearing about how good it is, so I’m interested in going back. I think I’ll try the audiobook, like I’m planning to do with The Secret History.

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