Title: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genre: Adult Fantasy / Historical Fiction
Publication Date: August 23rd, 2022
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ to maybe a ⭐⭐⭐✨
Thank you to the publisher and netgalley for a complimentary earc to review! All opinions are my own.
“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?” (Goodreads)
I was really looking forward to this one since I really enjoyed The Poppy War trilogy. I’d say that it is one of my top fantasy series. It’s just that good! I knew that this book would be a bit different since it deals more with academia and language. Can’t say that I have read a book about language, but also haven’t really dabbled in the academia genre either. There were aspects that I liked about this new novel, but also parts that bogged it down. As an anticipated read I would say that it was a bit disappointing. I do have hopes for the sequel since this is just the beginning.
The book is told from multiple point-of-views but mostly the book is about Robin Swift. He has been given a chance to learn at Oxford, but most importantly Babel. It’s all about the languages. This chance of a lifetime does come at a price and it’s one Robin isn’t sure he wants to pay.
I did like learning about Robin because he has an interesting background of coming from nothing to living with the rich but also never feeling like he fitted in to high society. His new life isn’t what it is cracked up to be and neither is the professor he lives with. Can’t say that I ever liked that professor. Robin is a character who falls under the morally gray spectrum. He has good intentions but his means of doing things can be questionable. Not everyone agrees with the way he handles things. I will say that his actions felt very genuine and I could see him being a real character because of it.
There are a lot of characters in this book, some with bigger roles and other with a smaller one, but each one still adds to the plot in a way. I do have a few I liked more than others and I am actually quite curious who will show up in book two as well as what their plot lines will entail. Robin does find a found family and they each understand one another. I liked seeing them interact together and it’s also one of my favorite tropes.
Even though I liked a majority of the characters, I can’t say that the plot twists that involved a few were really shocking. I know I didn’t connect fully with the characters, no fault to them, and so maybe that is why.
The book’s plot does talk a lot about colonialism, racism, and xenophobia. I thought that the conversation was done really well and had me thinking a lot about how it relates to our own world. The things that some of these characters are told or have had done to them because of those things is just heartbreaking.
Now that I have mentioned the good, let’s get to the aspects I wasn’t a fan of. The beginning of the book did reel me in right away but it didn’t take long for it to slow down and kind of drag on with a lot of info-dumping. I understand why it had to be done since it is the beginning of a series as well as having an academic setting that involves language. There is a lot to discuss. I just wish it didn’t feel like a chore to get through at times. There are also some time jumps where they are just starting and then all of a sudden they are in their second or third year (can’t remember exactly). It wasn’t a terrible jump but I just wasn’t a fan of the transition.
Overall, it was a fine book. This author is a great writer and I will always enjoy that about her. I’m hoping that with a lot of the info-dump out of the way book two will be better when it comes to pacing. I am still curious and will continue to read on but with lower expectations. I know that others may not have the same issues as me and so I would say go ahead and read it to see if it is the right fit!