Book review: BABEL

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Thanks to Harper Voyager for sending me a preliminary copy of Babel for review!

After Robin loses his entire family to cholera, the mysterious Professor Lovell brings him from China to London. The professor raises Robin as a scholar, training him in English, Latin, ancient Greek and Chinese to prepare him for the prestigious Oxford Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel. In addition to its role as a global center for translation, it is the hub of silver work. Everything runs on magic money, enchanted with “matching pairs” of words and phrases in different languages ​​that advance society beyond belief.

At first, Robin is blown away by the city, the university, and the first friends he’s ever had. Soon, however, his loyalty and morality are tested when he encounters the dark society of Hermes. Dedicated to sabotaging Babel and working the money in its entirety, the Hermès Company drastically alters Robin’s view of his new world. Robin must decide if he wants to stay with his comfortable life in search of knowledge or bring down the system that controls the entire world.

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I couldn’t stop thinking about babel for the past two months. The second I finished it, I wanted to start over. It is an ambitious novel that tackles colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism. RF Kuang takes a scathing look at the British Empire and establishes them as the villains of history quickly and unambiguously.

While other characters constantly tell Robin to appreciate what Professor Lovell and England have done in lifting him out of poverty, he understands early on that he is being used for his native language and the translation skills that that allows him. However, as the tagline states, “an act of translation is always an act of treason” and, in the end, the Empire takes more from Robin and his homeland than it gives back.

You know from the subtitle of the novel – The Necessity of Violence: A Mysterious History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution – this babel is going to be a complicated and dark story. Kuang’s exploration of colonialism and language is nuanced. His exploration of the supposed gratitude the colonies should owe to the British Empire for the damage inflicted on them hits hard. Magic and language are resources to be extracted from the poor and this exploitation only increases. Robin’s rage steadily rises as he learns, and readers grow with it.

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Although I’m a big dark academia fan, I don’t think babel falls completely into this category. The characters are every bit as obsessive and academically driven as those in a book like The secret story. However, babel looks more like an answer to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellanother alternate magical story set in 19th century England. babel addresses the impact of imperialism on the rest of the world in a way that the latter does not. In doing so, he puts more emphasis on, as Kuang puts it, “the brokenness of academia and the sacrifices that real change might require.”

At the end of the day, babel is a stylistically heavy tale about identity, revolution and, as the title suggests, “the necessity of violence”. Read it if you’re ready to feel rage and take on empires. babel releases August 23, 2022 and is available for pre-order now from your local independent bookstore and Bookshop.org.

TW: abuse, colonialism, death of parent, explicit racism, violence, death of major figure, mention of slavery, sexism, suicidal ideation, torture, child abuse

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