Hello everyone! Finally, I am bringing you this review! I realize that I am very late to the “hype train” with this book, but I would say better late than never. If you are active on any social media platform with a book-centric forum, then you have definitely heard of Babel and all of its praise. The premise is so unique that I really couldn’t say no to this one. There are some heavy topics covered in the book so I will offer a content warning after this introduction. Colonialism is not an unavoidable topic by any means and I think it is important to confront that rather large portion of history in some manner. Now, let’s discuss R.F. Kuang’s Babel.
Major Trigger Warnings: Violence and Gore, Abuse, Discussions and Depictions of Racism, Discussions and Depictions of Sexism, Depictions of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
In 1828, Robin Swift is orphaned in Canton after a disease takes his family. He is soon adopted by the mysterious Professor Lovell, who begins to train Robin in various languages, such as Latin and Greek. These rigorous lessons are to prepare Robin for Oxford’s most prestigious Royal Institute of Translation – also known as Babel. There, students are trained in, not just translation, but silver – working. Silver working involves magic that can only be achieved through the power of words. This silver is what is ultimately used by Britain in its vast colonization efforts. Robin is initially enchanted by Oxford and its seemingly endless supply of knowledge. Soon, however, Robin begins to realize that his serving Oxford is an act of betrayal against his motherland. A shadowy organization, the Hermes Society, recruits Robin to stop Britain’s exploitation of colonized nations. When Britain plans to declare war on China, Robin must decided if he can change Babel or if Babel is even worth saving.
Wow. I just have to say wow. I was so afraid that this book would not live up to the hype, but it certainly did. I am no expert in colonial literary studies, but I know enough to appreciate Kuang’s beautifully crafted, yet painfully real, novel. Kuang seamlessly blends together her unique world-building with historical realities. Robin Swift is a complex and sympathetic protagonist, as are his friends. Kuang at no point tries to simplify the history of British colonialism but points out how deeply entwined it is in the lives of everyone it touches and who ultimately benefits. Her use of the power of language is incredibly profound and points out just how integral language is in the building and shaping of societies. Babel really is a carefully thought-out and exhilarating novel that you should definitely experience for yourself.