Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by RF Kuang

My Five Word TL:DR Review : Fascinating, Mesmerising, Clever, Shocking, Beautiful


Babel is one of those books that I’ve inexplicably struggled to find the words for with this review, so I’m going to start by saying that this book feels like an ode to words, a love letter to literature if you will, and I loved reading/listening to it.  On a wider note there is plenty for discussion here, colonialism, racism, the power of language, dark academia, elitism all wrapped up in a story narrated by a rather unassuming, shy and intelligent young man known as Robin Swift.

As the story begins we meet Robin (though this wasn’t his name at the time but an assumed identity forced upon him for his new life).  Robin’s mother dies leaving him an orphan and his care is picked up by an Oxford Professor called Lovell (Loveless might have been more appropriate).  Lovell gives Robin a roof over his head, food and clothing and in return Robin is expected to study hard and become a first class student in the field of translations – the aim, to attend Oxford University’s Institute of Translations, known as Babel (the students attending known as Babblers because of their ability with languages).  It soon becomes apparent that Robin will receive little (or no) affection from Lovell and if he fails in his endeavours to work hard and learn the threat that he will be returned to China (homeless and alone) is more than implicit.  Robin soon discovers that his love of reading is not all about finding heros but is something that has been fostered in him for other purposes.  Now, I don’t want to go into any further detail about the plot, I guess, rather than a coming of age story you could call this a rude awakening.  It does take Robin a while, but eventually he begins to question who and what he’s working for and whether he can truly deny the harsh truths he discovers.

So, to the setting. Well, we briefly start in Canton, we travel quickly to London where Robin’s transformation to potential Oxford candidate takes place before finally moving to Oxford. I loved the descriptions and can totally understand Robin’s lovel for both London and Oxford and the lifestyle he leads in both places. He soon discovers that as a student at Oxford he is only suffered amongst the wealthy and elite for his language abilities. Abilities that are fundamentally necessary in the use of magic.

In terms of the magic,I would say that this is the only real element that I felt  a little unenthusiastic about.  I’m not going to go into great detail but basically silver working involves bars of silver that are enchanted and powered by matched terms – basically, this is why there is such a necessity for language students to study words and find their lost meanings.  The silver bars can be used for all sorts of applications from keeping a bridge strengthened to powering a machine.  On the face of it I must say I like the sound of this very much but in terms of Babel, well, I’m not sure it was absolutely essential to include the use of magic.  For me this reads more like historical fiction rather than fantasy – that being said, I loved the exploration of words that the magic system involved, the footnotes looking at origins and meanings and the way these have changed during the course of time. So, definitely more an observation and perhaps one that will interest those readers who shy away a little from fantasy on a more epic scale.

The writing is beautiful and Kuang is a great storyteller. I just love the way she turns a phrase.  She has modernised the dialogue which is something I like as it makes the read flow better somehow and, to be clear, that’s not to say that the characters come out with all manner of everyday slang from our current era but they’re not constantly thee’ing and thou’ing or nay’ing or aye’ing.  In fact, the author being something of an expert in this field not to mention incredibly well researched, I half expected this to have a more olde worlde style and I admit I breathed a sigh of relief to find that wasn’t the case.

The feel of the story gradually changes, and whilst you’re expecting it to an extent because of the narration style, you soon find yourself in much deeper water and scratching your head about how everything will be resolved.  This isn’t grimdark by any standards but with revolution being the key to the piece, in terms of invention and uprising, well, history demonstrates only to well how change is often brought about and the subsequent bloodshed and death that it leaves in its wake.  On top of this there is plenty of food for thought here and it’s not wrapped up in soft or comforting terms.  Be prepared for harsh truths.

The characters.  Well, I wouldn’t say that I became overly attached to anyone other than Robin. He makes friends with fellow students Ramy, Letty, and Victoire and they all have their parts to play here but Robin is the key character for me. He has a great character arc and I found myself worrying about him a good deal of the time.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike the other characters but they just didn’t feel as well drawn to me, they were there because they were part of Robin’s experience and helped nudge him, sometimes unintentionally, to hone his understanding and guide his future actions.

Overall, I really enjoyed Babel. I listened to the audio version which was excellent and I must say I found the footnotes much better in this format.  I would describe this as historical fiction blended with light magical realism.  The writing and attention to detail are stunning and I really look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 4.5 of 5 stars