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


Can’t Wait Wednesday : Babel by RF Kuang


“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that was originally created by Breaking the Spine.  Unfortunately Breaking the Spine are no longer hosting so I’m now linking my posts up to Wishful Endings Can’t Wait Wednesday. Don’t forget to stop over, link up and check out what books everyone else is waiting for.  If you want to take part, basically, every Wednesday, we highlight a book that we’re really looking forward to.  This week my book is: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by RF Kuang. Here’s the gorgeous cover and the description:


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.

Expected publication : August 2022

Friday Face Off : As pure as the driven snow – a cover that is white


Here we are again with the Friday Face Off meme created by Books by Proxy .  This is a great opportunity to feature some of your favourite book covers.  The rules are fairly simple each week, following a predetermined theme (list below) choose a book (this doesn’t have to be a book that you’ve read), compare a couple of the different covers available for that particular book and choose your favourite.   Future week’s themes are listed below – if you have a cover in mind that you’re really wanting to share then feel free to leave a comment about a future suggested theme.  I’ve also listed events that take place during the year, that I’m aware of, so you can link up your covers – if you’re aware of any events that you think I should include then give me a shout.  This week’s theme:

White – a cover that is predominantly white

I hope you all had fun with this one and that there were a few books to choose from (I wonder whether anyone will have gone for a montage of white book covers this week – I do love it when that happens.  Anyway, this week my choice is an excellent book: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R.F. Kuang and, not surprisingly, there are a few stunning covers to choose from so take a look.

My favourite this week (and it really wasn’t an easy choice because I liked a lot of these) bt this cover is just so stunning and dramatic:


Do you have a favourite?

I’ll be updating the list in order to include forthcoming events that I’m aware of so that you can perhaps link your themes up where possible (if you know of an event you’d like to share then let me know in the comments).  As always, if you wish to submit an idea then leave me a comment – or if you’d like to host a week then simply let me know.

Next week – Action – a cover that depicts action of some sort

Future themes: (if you’re struggling with any of these themes then use a ‘freebie’ or one of your favourite covers) (I’ve added some new themes – some of these are slightly different, in order to avoid too much repetition I’m trying to make the themes more of a suggestion that everyone can interpret how they like.  


7th August – Action – a cover that depicts action of some sort

14th August – Glasses or spectacles – “One could mention many lovable traits in Smee. For instance, after killing, it was his spectacles he wiped instead of his weapon.”

21st August – Potions –  hubble bubble

28th August – Dark road – ‘the road goes ever on and on’

4th September – Cold and crisp – any cover that gives you winter vibes

11th September – A cover with a pattern

18th September – Minimalistic and lacking clutter

25th September – A very busy cover full to bursting with detail

2nd October – A standout font

9th October – Mist/fog – “A thin grey fog hung over the city, and the streets were very cold; for summer was in England.”

16th October – Spider web – “Farewell, Aragog, king of the arachnids, whose long and faithful friendship those who knew you would never forget!

23th October – Ripped/torn – interpret it as you wish

30th October – Forest/jungle – ‘None of the Jungle People like being disturbed.’

6th November – Planets – “You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.”

13th November – Bright – ‘The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades’.

20th November – Words only – “Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

27th November – Modern sci fi

4th December –  Fae – or fairy??

11th December – Lake – the mysterious lake

18th December – Highly Stylised

25th December- Freebie – or day off.

Can’t Wait Wednesday : The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

Can't Wait Wednesday

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that was originally created by Breaking the Spine.  Unfortunately Breaking the Spine are no longer hosting so I’m now linking my posts up to Wishful Endings Can’t Wait Wednesday. Don’t forget to stop over, link up and check out what books everyone else is waiting for.  If you want to take part, basically, every Wednesday, we highlight a book that we’re really looking forward to.  This week my book is : The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang – The Poppy War was an amazing read and so naturally I am giddy with excitement to read No.2

Dragon RepublicThe searing follow-up to 2018’s most celebrated fantasy debut – THE POPPY WAR.

In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.

But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.

Due for publication May 2019

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Posted On 3 May 2018

Filed under Book Reviews
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poppyThe Poppy War was probably one of my biggest reading surprises so far this year.  Don’t get me wrong, I had expectations for this one.  I loved the description and the cover certainly caught my eye.  What made it a surprise was not in reading a compelling story, well written with a winning combination of strong characters, fascinating world and wonderful plot – but, to discover it was a debut.  It’s not like I’ve not read good debuts before but this just has such scope and depth.  Reading this was like Christmas came early.  I loved it and was riveted to the page.  Consequently, my review will more than likely be a shambles of gushing and rambling which I will apologise for in advance.

The Poppy War is one of those amazing books that grips you immediately, primarily because the main character is so intriguing to read about.  She’s a great protagonist and somebody who drives the plot forward with her relentless determination.  Rin is an orphan whose guardians are not lovable to say the least.  They run an illegal drug business and use Rin as cheap labour.  They’ve arranged a marriage for her that suits their own aims but Rin has different ideas.  Her one chance to escape the drudgery of this life and avoid a loveless marriage is to take the academy test and enter military school.  Of course, being a peasant, penniless and with few prospects to boot, Rin has not had the luxury of years of study like her peers.  But, the exam is open to all and Rin is highly motivated.  She has two years in which to prepare, so, striking a bargain with a local tutor, she starts her schooling in earnest – of course she has to do her work first.  These are a gruelling two years but they pay off.  Rin passes with flying colours and achieves a place at the most prestigious and sought after academy – Sinegard – which is just as well because anything less and she would have been unable to take up the position due to financial issues.  Sinegard is the only academy where Rin won’t have to pay fees.

Be careful what you wish for is a phrase that is often bandied about, usually with good reason.  When Rin arrives at the Academy she finds herself disliked by the majority of the other students who see her placement there as little more than a token gesture and expect her to fail at the first obstacle.  They make fun of her accent and her darker skin.  She is unsophisticated and has no training in martial arts.  And, yet, she isn’t daunted.  Unlike the other students Rin doesn’t have a loving family waiting to welcome her back home with open arms, she has no money and frankly no alternative.  Failure isn’t an option, she got what she wished for and it might not be perfect but she still wants it, more than anything.

I don’t really want to go further into the plot.  The clue is in the title.  There will be war.  We learn something of the history of the Nikara Empire through Rin’s study and it soon becomes obvious that the current peace is a tentative one only.  The Federation of Mugen have twice warred with Nikara and it seems that a third war is inevitable.

So, let’s talk about other things.  I’m sure that events in this book have borrowed from Asian history, however, I’m not an expert in that area and so I’m not going to discuss that aspect at all because at the end of the day, firstly, I can’t speak with any authority on the subject, and secondly, this is a work of fantasy so although it may use real events as inspiration it’s also a work of fiction.  To be honest I’m not even totally sure what era this is depicting, the world itself feels old and yet some of the revelations later in the book almost felt like the WWII period.  So – as you can see, I’m not an expert and I’ll leave such explanations of this area to others who are more knowledgeable than I am.

I loved the world building in Poppy War.  It’s rich with information and yet it flows in a natural way that doesn’t hinder the read.  There’s so much that I could mention, the history, the regions and the way they’re named, details about the warlords, just simple things such as eating, clothing or the bustling life in Sinegard and the way it differs from the rural life Rin had previously experienced.  We see these things as Rin does and it lends the experience one of wonder.  The school is also a great setting.  Certainly it’s a well used trope but again in this story, and reading it from Rin’s POV it felt like it had been given a new lease of life.

Rin is the main character but there are others that also jump off the page.  I loved Jiang – Master of Lore.  And equally Altan.  Altan is one of those characters who seems destined to make a difference.  He’s the star of the Academy and he plays a large role in the war.  Interestingly Jiang and Altan are opposed in their ways of thinking and this really helps to highlight the conflict in Rin to do the right thing – even though she’s not really sure just what that is.  Then we have Nezha, he hated Rin at the Academy and yet things change, as they both find out, and the battlefield is no place for petty squabbles.  There are other characters but I’m conscious that this review is shortly going to turn into an essay so I’ll leave it at that.

I feel I must point out that this book is not YA.  The last maybe third/quarter of the book is all out war.  In fact initially I found the jump from school endeavours to all out fighting quite unexpected and abrupt – there’s no gradual build up here.  The country goes to war and within a few pages you’re very aware of that fact.  I admit that at first I was shocked, I think I’d been lulled into a false sense of security along the way and had almost forgotten that war was coming.  Consequently, I think I felt the same sort of head spinning confusion that the characters experienced as they scrambled into action and tried to put up defences – I’d like to think that was the author’s intention and if so it really was an excellent ploy.

My next thoughts are a bit of a muddle.  I’m not sure whether or not to describe this as grimdark because the book doesn’t really have that type of feel to me.  Plus, I’m wary of putting a whole swathe of readers off who don’t like the idea of the violence, blood and viscera that is sometimes associated with such a definition.  But, at the same time, this is war, it’s not pretty, there’s a lot of death and with this particular war, where the aim of the aggressor seems to be genocide then, as you can imagine, atrocities take place.  I think that what stops this from becoming an unpalatable bloodfest, in spite of the horrors, is that we don’t read about the violence, torture, etc, as it takes place but rather come across it after the fact. More importantly, it doesn’t feel like the things described are there to shock you but more to simply report what took place and to give a foundation for future events in the book.  To be honest I think the scenes described are fundamental to both the story and character arc.  But please be aware of trigger warnings for rape, torture, large scale death, drug abuse.

I hope that hasn’t discouraged potential readers.  Personally, I was thoroughly gripped by this book and my main aim is to encourage others to pick it up.  It’s full of magical elements that left me unable to put it down other than for sleep.  Shamans, Gods, Demigods, late night stealth attacks against the odds, warfare, military strategy and an absolutely excellent protagonist.

A very impressive debut that I imagine will be one of my favourite books this year.

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