Book Review: Babel

by R.F. Kuang
Historical Fantasy
560 pages
Expected publication: August 23, 2022

In 1828, young Robin Swift, orphaned by a cholera epidemic, is taken away from his homeland of China and spirited off to England where he is given a home, an education, and eventually a place at Oxford University’s most prestigious college: The Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel, the storied tower wherein scholars learn the finer points of translation and use this knowledge to inscribe silver bars with words of magic that help to run Britain and further its drive towards empire. But behind this facade of academic prestige and imperial power lies a nest of corruption and bigotry, as the wealthy white men who hold power have no desire to share it with those they find inferior. As a Chinese man living in England, Robin faces his share of bigotry, and he and his misfit friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with the system that has given them power, or with their homelands that are slowly being crushed by Britain’s insatiable appetite for money and power.

With her fourth novel, R.F. Kuang, author of the Poppy War trilogy, declared that she had written a story that was a “thematic response to The Secret History [by Donna Tartt] and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell [by Susanna Clarke]”. As both The Secret History and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are considered masterpieces of their respective genres, this is a bold claim, but not one without merit given what Babel sets out to do. It is, on its surface, a dark academia fantasy wherein a group of like-minded friends meet at university, where- as in The Secret History- the academic goals and desires they nurtured in childhood collide with the demands of adult life– often with disastrous results. Babel is also a story where, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the magic that Britain has (or had in the past) affects the rest of the world in unexpected ways, and much is made of who is allowed access to it. This is the point where the books part ways, though. The Secret History depicts a college clique as it crumbles when the students’ desire for an aesthetic life becomes incompatible with reality and results in a death. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell gives us a fantastical English past where two magicians strive for similar goals, but with radically different notions of how to do it while the narrator mocks the society at nearly every turn in a Dickensian fashion.

Babel is an outsider’s story that borrows elements from the other two books, then heads down a very different road. Thanks to their skin color, gender, or homeland, the students at the heart of the story, Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty, are all subject to the systemic bigotry that helped turn Britain (whether in reality or in this fantasy) into an empire. This Britain desperately needs their skills to fuel the magic that literally keeps the country together, but those on top are unwilling to give them even the basic respect due to them as human beings.

At first, Robin doesn’t notice this, or if it does he doesn’t let himself think about it. He already has so much to do with his studies that he can let himself forget the problems. But after a fateful encounter forces him to look at the racism and misogyny inherent in the system, Robin must think about the nature of his studies and his contributions to British magic. Will his contributions truly help other people, or is he betraying his own heritage by aiding a culture that intends to exploit everything it can? This question becomes more than just rhetorical when Robin hears that England intends to engage in an unjust war against China, and he must decide what lengths he is willing to go to in the name of justice.

Though it is far from a perfect book, the topics that Babel delves into combined with Kuang’s ability to skillfully weave them into the narrative without beating the reader over the head with them makes this book one of the most thought-provoking fantasy novels of the year.

Thank you to Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Babel

  1. My brain is so fried I think I need the picture book version…I’m n a beach read roll…and essays. My brain can handle that…

  2. Very nice. This is certainly a book I’m interested in. I’m curious, though, about whether you think you got more out of it having already read The Secret History and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? I’ve yet to read either, though I do have Strange & Norrell on my shelves and wouldn’t be opposed to getting The Secret History.

  3. I read Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because Kuang had compared her book to them, but it’s definitely not necessary to read those two to appreciate Babel. I’m glad I did read them, though, because I now adore Secret History, and I appreciate Jonathan Strange, even though I had some persistent frustrations with it.

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