‘Babel’ is one of the most ambitious novels I’ve ever read. It blurs fantasy, historical fiction, social commentary, and linguistics into a shining silver piece of alternate nineteenth century history. As a work of literature it’s a monumental achievement. This is a book to be read slowly and savoured, allowing time to sink into the world and admire the intricacies of each thread. As a story, unfortunately, a little is lost to the sheer scope of everything else going on – but that shouldn’t take away from what RF Kuang has achieved here.
In 1928, a boy is orphaned by cholera in Canton, China. This in itself is not unusual – but this boy, soon to be known as Robin Swift, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell and tutored extensively in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese. The purpose? For Robin to enroll in the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford – colloquially known as Babel. Babel is the crown jewel of the British Empire – the seat of translation, but more importantly silver-working, the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation to magical effect. Silver working has granted the British Empire unparalleled power and helped it colonise the globe. At Oxford, Robin has everything he ever dreamed of – but everything he does furthers colonialisation, betraying his Chinese homeland. Robin finds himself trapped between Babel and those who would work to bring it, and therefore the Empire, down. He must decide what he is willing to sacrifice – and what is required to truly engender revolution.
The research RF Kuang has done to bring this novel to life is exquisite. It’s full of pieces of real nineteenth century history and social and political commentary of the time, each with a slight overlay in the context of silver-working. The worldbuilding is exceptional, absolutely capturing the atmosphere of academia and Oxford, both from the perspective of the average white male student in the nineteenth century, and the foreign, non-white, and not always male students of Babel. Every aspect feels tangible and believable.
Silver-working, the fantasy spin, is a smaller part of the novel, simple but immensely effective. It isn’t explored to its fullest potential, but this is less a fantasy novel and more a novel exploring social and political commentary, so that’s to be expected.
The characters are wonderful. This is a single POV novel with the exception of three interludes towards the end, but Robin is strong enough to carry the story on his own. Robin loves language and loves to learn, but he struggles with his position at Oxford. He’s constantly grappling with issues of identity, of privilege, of Empire, and of what it is he actually wants. He loves his classmates – they’re the three people he’s closest to in the world – but he’s also, in many ways, very alone. Robin is a likeable and relatable protagonist, making many aspects of the book much more accessible. His development throughout is immense, and whilst his actions at the end may prove divisive, its easy to see why.
Robin’s classmates – Ramy, Victoire, and Letty – each add a new dimension to the story. Ramy, Robin’s roommate and a Muslim constantly referred to as Hindu by his Oxford contemporaries, is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and observant in a way Robin is not. Victoire, Haitian in origin from a family still wounded by the slave trade, is fiery and downright angry at times in a way Robin initially struggles to understand, but gradually comes to. Letty, an English rose, is vastly different to her contemporaries – kind and easy to love and absolutely determined to fit in, but always on a different course by consequence of her birth. The characters play off each other well, and each feels well-rounded.
There are a few minor criticisms. At just over five hundred pages this isn’t the longest book in the world – especially for fantasy – but the first half is very slow, requiring concentration and patience as the worldbuilding and characters are established. Kuang does well at creating atmosphere and a sense of foreboding before things start to unravel, but the change of pace doesn’t quite work, and several points lack the emotional impact they should have. The ending itself is likely to divide opinion. I understand why Kuang did it, but it did feel a little like a cop out. This is definitely a book which prioritises the philosophy and social commentary over the story.
Overall, Babel is a monumental undertaking and Kuang almost carries it off. It’s a book with crossover appeal to fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction fans, and worth a read for anyone who enjoys social commentary, exquisite worldbuilding, British history, and the complexities of human psychology. There are many things to love and the impact lingers after the final page. A recommended read.
Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd August 2022
RF Kuang is also the author of The Poppy War trilogy – I review the first book here.