Babel by R.F. Kuang – ARC Review!

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

Oxford, 1836.

The city of dreaming spires.

It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world.

And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.

Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift.

Until it became a prison…

But can a student stand against an empire?

I am SO glad that I decided to buddy read this with Leah! We both needed somewhere to write down our thoughts and have someone to talk over things, and get angry with. Be sure to check out here review here! Robin Swift counts himself lucky. Lucky to have been plucked from his home in Canton and raised in England. Lucky to be accepted into Oxford, a paradise for a boy like Robin who thrives on learning. Accepted into the Institute of Translation, Robin, Ramy, Victoire and Letty spend their first few years in a kind of awed hazed. Amazed they had been accepted despite being women, foreign. But the more time they spend there, the more they learn about the Institute, how it distributes it’s wealth, the more they start to loose their rose tinted glasses and come to realise that the Oxford they have created in their heads is not the same as everyone else sees. Is it too late to bring about change or will their revolt bring the whole of Oxford crashing down on their heads.

If I could only use one word to sum this book up it would be exquisite. It’s been a while since a book gripped me as much as this one, dragged me down into the pages, made me feel so angry, heartbroken and resigned. Everything from the world to the magic system was so brilliantly brought to life, but what stood out to me most of all were the characters. Robin, Ramy, Victoire and Letty are all so real they almost bleed off the pages. Robin is a boy struggling with his identity in a world that is ready to define him, even if he isn’t. Growing up in England has almost indoctrinated him to a certain way of life, and it takes moving to Oxford and meeting other people like him for him to realise that not everything he’s been told is the truth. Ramy was a child taken from his family because of his ability to soak up languages and the Empires knowledge of how he could work for them. He has seen the British Empire at it’s worst and has no real love for it. Victoire is both a girl and foreign, one of those alone would cause most people to stir, but together mean she is the biggest target of the lot. Letty is the only white member of the gang, with an inability to see the sometimes quiet, sometimes loud snubs her friends have to deal.

Together they are outsiders at Oxford, misfits, but Babel is willing to accept them as long as they prove themselves valuable. Kuang uses their everyday lives and interactions to show what it is like for someone classed as ‘foreign’ in a privileged white world, but also, how easy it is to be an ally until the time to step up arrives. How importantly identity is and how distressing it can be when you don’t know where you come from, where you belong. Seeing all the little snubs, the cruelties these characters had to deal with makes you realise their strength, but also makes you incredibly angry that they have to be that strong to survive. None of them are wholly good, instead in true Kuang fashion they fall more on the morally grey side of the scale, the difference, the thing that makes us love one character more then the other is the thing they are fighting for.

Anyone who has read Kuangs previous works will know that rage normally play’s a large part in her stories, and Babel is no different. You start this book feeling almost pity for Robin, a boy who struggles so deeply with his identity, but through him growing as a character, coming to realise his worth in a world made for rich white men, you slowly but surely start to get angry until you get consumed by an overwhelming rage. Rage at how unjust the world was back then and rage at knowing that just how little has changed. Rage at those ‘fake allies’ who claim to be on your side until you need to take action. Rage at a world where people believe the colour of your skin decides how important your life is. Let’s just say if you’re reading this book and not getting angry… you’re part of the problem.

Through Babel, Kuang gives us a scathing view of the British Empire and Capitalism, not just accurately for the historic period, but also through her magic system. In Babel’s world Silver bars, marked with a pair of matching words, are used to facilitate magic. Magic that goes to the highest bidder ensuring the wealthy have safe carriages, The British Empire have ships that sail faster than others, Mills have machines that run faster without the need for human intervention. To be able to create a silver bar, the worker needs to find words that mean the same thing in two different languages, but to really make it work the user has to live, breath and dream in the languages they are using making it easier for Britain to bring in Children from foreign countries and mould them to society, rather than trying to learn the languages themselves. She shows how willing the Empire was to take things from lesser, ‘uncivilised’ worlds, as long as it benefited them in the process, but also how their tendency to steal what they need, to almost devour other cultures into their own would ultimately be their downfall. I loved how literature and language played such a large part in this story and, as a huge history and language buff, couldn’t get enough of the little etymology lessons Kuang throws in, how we learn that so many words have multiple meanings in multiple languages, I found it all incredibly interesting and almost devoured those parts of the book.

If you’re looking for a fantasy book with an easy to hate villain, a nice tied up ending where everything works out for the better, a story where the good guy get’s their happy ending… this isn’t going to be the book for you. The villain isn’t a person it’s a people, a people who still to this day do not see what they’re doing as wrong and the ending… well I think we all know that, sadly, this is a story that is still going on today and with the state of world politics, with no end in sight. It’s a book about resistance, about what it takes to survive in a world that doesn’t want to accept you, about rebellion and it’s cost. It’s not a fast read, the first 50% of the book gets us settled into the world, the characters, the magic system and then BANG the story takes off and I found it nearly impossible to put down. This review doesn’t at all do this book justice, but it’s a book that is so, so prevalent now with the state of the world. Kuang has created another masterpiece and I would LOVE to read more set in this world.

20 replies »

  1. Becky! This is a great review and it perfectly captures both the soul of the story and the absolute rage that grew in me the further into the book I read. I’m so glad that we read this together or I wouldn’t have had anywhere to put all the feelings that came up while reading. You caught all those discussions we had and translated them (no pun intended) beautifully into this review.

    Liked by 1 person

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