To say Babel by R.F.Kuang was my most anticipated book of the year would’ve been an understatement because I was literally unable to get into any other book in my anticipation to read this one. But unfortunately the hype was all I was destined to get as this has become my biggest disappointment this year.
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.
In a Nutshell
- Well researched Dark academia focusing on Languages and translation
- Discourse on Racism, colonialism, sexism in academia
- Plots and characters never rise above basic
- Loud with no space for subtleness or nuance
Babel by R F Kuang is a well researched exposition on colonialism and racism in the backdrop of academia. It dives deep into the world of languages and translations through our protagonist Robin, who joins an elite group of students in Oxford with the ability to manipulate silver by magic and the spoken word. Robin who got transplanted from his home country and living in a foreign world by the grace of his benefactor, finds solace in the company of his compatriots, Ramiz, Victoire and Letty but his idyllic world is not without its fair share of ripples which gradually but surely leads to rebellion and heartache.
The first 5-10% of the book was excellent. I was emotionally invested in Robin right from the get go. Kuang’s prose had me completely entranced right from page 1 and I even teared up a little in those first few chapters.The discourse on racism and colonialism also had me hooked and the expositions on language and translations had me awestruck. I was halfway in love with the book after those first few chapters ready to give it all the stars… BUT…. it never progressed beyond that.
The next 70-80% of the book was just a repetition of all of this over and over again with little to no further developments of the characters or plot. The story moved forward at a snail’s pace with exposition after exposition on language which was interesting no doubt, but felt like sitting in a language and translation lecture rather than reading a novel. Ramiz, Victoire and Letty felt more like props than well fleshed out characters. Robin was the most developed character but even with him, I found myself getting frustrated at the lack of progress after a while. The found family which fractures from within, a hallmark of all dark academia, utterly failed in this book since all I was given were 2-3 scenes telling me there was a found family rather than showing me through actions and conversations. Hence the impact of the splinters that follows was little to none.
“If we push in the right spots – then we’ve moved things to the breaking point. The the future becomes fluid, and change is possible. History isn’t a premed tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.”
I was shocked by the complete change of tone in this book compared to the Poppy War series. Where Poppy War series revelled in the nuanced greyness of it’s characters, making me swing from one emotion to another like a pendulum, there was little to no subtlety in how Kuang wanted the readers to perceive these characters and their actions. After each and every incident of racism the characters face, we get paragraph after paragraph of explanation which completely ruins the impact of the actual scene. The villains were loud to the point of being caricaturish with no room for layers. Everything was painted in blacks and whites leaving little to the imagination of the reader. For some this might be exactly what they need in a book but personally I prefer having some greys in my characters especially villains. This in my opinion manages to enhance their sinisterness more than if they were simply shown to be evil with nothing good within them.
I do appreciate the immense effort and research that went into creating this book but I also wish Kuang had spent 10% of that effort into crafting the characters and plot as well. The fantasy element was just a little bit of silver magic added on to actual history to make it different. The writing though beautiful, failed to leave a lasting impression. The footnotes were purely for cosmetic reasons without them adding anything substantial in terms of entertainment, insight or information. I felt like they were there, just to make the book look academic rather than enhance the content.
“One thing united them all, without Babel they had nowhere in this country to go. They had been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they didn’t understand and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom. They did not want to give them back.”
The actual plot starts somewhere in the last 20% by which point I was too bored to care. I could basically predict every thing that happened well in advance so nothing was actually surprising. If Kuang could have cut down on the expositions and elaborated and incorporated the last 20% into the rest of the book, it would’ve been a much better experience. That said, I seem to be in the definite minority with respect to this book. Literally everyone in my circle loved it, so chances are quite high it may live upto its hype for the rest of you as well. And for those hesitating to pick it up thinking the language would be too dense to understand, have no fears. It’s very easy to read and understand.
To conclude, I would have preferred to read Babel as a complete nonfiction as the subject matter contained within is utterly fascinating. As a work of fiction though, it failed me completely with neither plot nor characters managing to sustain my interest for long. If you find the problems I had with it to be something you seek in a book definitely go for it but otherwise your time would be better spent elsewhere.
You will love Babel if you loved :
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- If We Were Villains by M L Rio
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
Let’s Catch Up
Have you been as excited for Babel as I was? Have you read it? Did it live upto the hype? What other recommendations would you give for books that explore linguistics? Lemme know in the comments below 👇🏽Follow Books with Anjali on WordPress.com