Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

If there’s one book so many people were looking forward too, it’s Babel, the latest work by author R.F. Kuang. Her previous series, The Poppy War, received much well-deserved praise. The expectations for Babel were therefore quite high. However, it got again lots of priase on platforms such as TikTok and Goodreads. Because of this, I slowly became excited for this book. I’m not the biggest fan of dark academia, but I loved the The Poppy War trilogy. That little fact made me decide to actually read Babel. Was it worth the hype and excitement?

Title: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Number of pages: 545
ISBN: 9780063021426
Genre: Fantasy

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
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.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

    Babel starts off with the introduction of Robin and professor Lovell. Robin’s mom just passed away and professor Lovell is about to take him from his home in Kanton to London, England. In the 1830’s, the British had colonialized China and many other countries, just to grow their empire. Robin has proven to be useful for translations from Chinese to English. Professor Lovell takes him to London and becomes his guardian. Once in London, Robin has to endure lots and lots of lessons – and barely has any freedom – to make his language skills perfect. Fast forward six years, and he is at Oxford, studying at Babel, the largest translation institute in the world. It’s there that he meets Ramy, Letty and Victoire and the group becomes inseperable. In fact, they are the only students in their year. It’s not long that Robin learns about the true motives of Babel and what they have to do for the British empire.

    I am going to write one big unpopular opinion here, but this chonker of a book really, really disappointed me. I was just so incredibly bored the entire time, I had a hard time picking the book back up after putting it down. I found all characters uninteresting, despite the incredible way Kuang has excecuted them. The same goes for the plot. To me, it felt like I was reading an essay instead of a fantasy novel. Not much happened. Eventually the story picks up after about 60%, but it couldn’t be saved for me anymore. I just couldn’t be bothered paying any further attention.

    Despite the uninteresting plot and characters, the writing is flawless. Kuang has studied at Oxford and therefore is an academic herself. This shows. A lot of research has been put into this book. On one hand, this is proof of a lot of passion for this work. On the other hand, it makes the book feel like an academic paper instead of a story I could invest myself in. The love for languages is something that really shows here, but it’s too much information. The book is supposed to make you think and discuss about colonization, racism and other themes. It requires a lot of attention and interest in philosophy. I find philosophy very boring and I’m not looking for these particular things in my books, so no wonder I had a hard time.

    Babel by R.F. Kuang is a book that didn’t meet my expectations. In fact, these were set way too high for me. I just didn’t care about the characters, the plot and the deeper thinking involved. I want something to happen in my stories, not for them to be such slowburns. I understand other people love this book, but uunfortunately it’s not for me.


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