ARC Review: “Babel” by R.F. Kuang

babel by R.F. Kuang book cover from goodreads
Original background cover photo credit: Photo by Sandip Roy on Unsplash

By the time Professor Richard Lovell found his way through Canton’s narrow alleys to the faded address in his diary, the boy was the only one in the house left alive.

Babel, Chapter 1 opening

Author: R.F. Kuang
Publication Date: August 23rd 2022
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Find it on: Goodreads

Many thanks to the author, R. F. Kuang, and publisher, Harper Voyager, for providing a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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.

From Goodreads

Review

Book Content Warnings: plague/cholera, drug addiction, child abuse, racism, slavery, sexism, discrimination, death during childbirth, alcoholism, suicide, suicidal ideation, gun violence

⚠️⚠️Minor spoilers on the basics of the magic system, silver-working⚠️⚠️

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is R.F Kuang’s newest lyrical fantasy novel releasing this fall 2022. While Kuang proclaims she went big with this story, that doesn’t begin to cover how expansive this book actually is. Equal parts decadent linguaphile exploration, historical fantasy, dark academia, and revolutionary social commentary, this story refuses to be pinned down to a single genre. Readers arrive in 1830s Oxford via detour through Canton, following main character Robin Swift as he is swept from his plague-ravaged home country into the demanding hands of his savior, Professor Lovell. In this loveless arrangement Robin picks up a knack for languages and is deemed sufficiently qualified to attend Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel. From there the story expands to cover his adventures in the prestigious college, his instruction in translation and silver-working, and the people he meets along the way.

R.F. Kuang profile picture from goodreads

Dec 26, 2021R.F. Kuang rated it ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐  ·  (Review from the author)

This is the most ambitious thing I’ve ever written. In a lot of ways, the Poppy War trilogy was my training wheels; I finished off the standard linear epic fantasy project, and now I get to do all the formal, stylistic, thematic experimentation that I want. It’s a love letter and breakup letter to Oxford. It gnaws at questions that have bothered me since I started graduate school–chiefly the brokenness of academia, and the sacrifices that true change might require. It’s all the gnarly, bizarre, fascinating facets to linguistics, translation, and colonialism I’ve been studying over the past few years. I can’t wait to share it all with you in 2022!!! (less)

Author self-review from Goodreads

Oxford and the college of Babel as a setting lend a dark academia mood to the story. The tower itself in which instruction for this branch of the college is located harkens back to the infamous Tower of Babel – an appropriate reference for the story. Each floor of the building has an allocated role – the ground floor contains the lobby and common citizen access, second floor is legal affairs, third floor houses the live interpreters, fourth floor is literature translation, and so on until we get to the topmost floor. This eighth floor houses the silver-working. Although Babel itself is already the most prestigious and well-funded of the Oxford colleges, renowned for their influence in world affairs and critical business functions, those who work in the silver-working department are the topmost of the social hierarchy.

Silver-working is a rare and privileged knowledge, taught exclusively at Babel and heavily safe-guarded for its critical role in every-day functions and broader British Empire superiority. However, because the nature of silver-working is rooted in the job of translation, it requires a particular type of person to successfully do the job. This is where R. F. Kuang introduces additional plot conflict and social commentary. The book, of course, describes silver-working best:

The basic principles of silver-working are very simple. You inscribe a word or phrase in one language on one side, and a corresponding word or phrase in a different language on the other. Because translation can never be perfect, the necessary distortions – the meaning lost or warped in the journey – are caught, and then manifested by the silver. And that, dear students, is as close to magic as anything within the realm of natural science.

Babel, chapter 9

Silver-working requires someone with intimate knowledge of a language and is a job best filled with native speakers. This means many non-Caucasian minorities are brought into early Britain through questionable means, groomed to grow their natural talent for languages, thrust into Oxford college, and told be to thankful for their fortuitous opportunity. For this reason the cast of characters we follow is very diverse. They experience not only the trauma of a new and unfriendly country but also encounter a constant stream of vicious racism and sexism throughout the story. There’s also nuance and breadth in how the racism is expressed, reminiscent of real-world experiences. For example our main character, Robin, a young man from Canton, experiences Oxford racism differently as a near white-passing person compared to one of his darker-skinned friends.

But unlike Canton, London had a mechanical heartbeat. Silver hummed through the city. It glimmered from the wheels of cabs and carriages and from horses’ hooves; shone from buildings under windows and over doorways; lay buried under the streets and up in the ticking arms of clock towers; was displayed in shopfronts whose signs proudly boasted the magical amplifications of their breads, boots, and baubles. The lifeblood of London carried a sharp, tinny timbre wholly unlike the rickety, clacking bamboo that underwrote Canton. It was artificial, metallic – the sound of a knife screeching across a sharpening steel; it was the monstrous industrial labyrinth of William Blake’s ‘cruel Works / Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic, moving by compulsion each other.’

Babel, chapter 2

In general although there are certainly fantasy components, this book hits hard on the social commentary elements and is certainly not a light read. Not only does it cover diversity, racism, sexism, and other social schisms that form in this striated microcosm, but colonialism, social injustice, and economic disparity are also discussed as pertains to the political and social powers that act around silver as a resource. Although this book is categorized as a fantasy piece, I’d propose could be more narrowly described as historical fiction crossed with magical realism. There is magic in the story in the form of silver-working and its effects, but that’s where the fantasy elements stop. You’ll meet no fantastical creatures or other manifestations of magic. Instead, the meat of the story dives into how the magic of translation and silver-working impact each life in this world.

Silver-powered machines of the kind William Blake dubbed ‘dark Satanic Mills’ were rapidly replacing artisanal labour, but rather than bringing prosperity to all, they had instead created an economic recession, had caused a widening gap between the rich and poor that would soon become the stuff of novels by Disraeli and Dickens.

Babel, chapter 12

R. F. Kuang’s writing is lyrical and moving, with beautiful flow. At times sentences can be a bit lengthy, but it didn’t take long to grow used to the style. Babel is a long, character-driven story unique from any other fantasy I’ve read. If I had to draw a comparison I’d say the basic concept of the how the magic acts is similar to Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett or The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson, but the origin of the magic and everything else beyond defy comparison. I picked Babel up for the intriguing magic concept and cool academia setting, but the story exploded into something much more expansive than I could have imagined. A stunning amount of research and preparation must have gone into producing this work. A sincere kudos to Kuang and her team for creating this story! I’ll have fond memories of this book for a long time to come, and encourage anyone who enjoys languages + magic to give this a try!

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