Book Review: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
ARC was provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Nico Delort
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Dark Academia
Pages: 560 pages (Kindle Edition)
Published: 23rd August 2022 by Harper Voyager
Babel was absolutely impressive, ambitious, and intelligently crafted. As unbelievable as it sounds, R.F. Kuang has triumphed over The Poppy War Trilogy—which I loved so much—with this one book.
“Language was always the companion of empire, and as such, together they begin, grow, and flourish. And later, together, they fall.”
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of Oxford Translators’ Revolution is Kuang’s newest novel. And unlike The Poppy War Trilogy, which I consider a grimdark fantasy series, Babel is a standalone dark academia novel. Also, because this is the longest book title I’ve ever witnessed, to make this review more digestible, I’m going to call the book simply Babel. Babel was—and still is, until August—my most anticipated release of the year. The cover art by Nico Delort looks spectacular, and I think many of you know that I am a fan of The Poppy War Trilogy. I am proud to say that I was one of the first reviewers for Kuang’s debut, The Poppy War, and I mentioned in my review of The Poppy War that Kuang will be one of the queens of modern fantasy. The Dragon Republic and The Burning God proved that notion. And with Babel, Kuang proved, once again, that she is indeed one of the best fantasy authors to appear within the past five years.
“‘But that’s the beauty of learning a new language. It should feel like an enormous undertaking. It ought to intimidate you. It makes you appreciate the complexity of the ones you know already.’”
The story in Babel is told almost exclusively from the perspective of Robin Swift. In 1828, Robin Swift lost his last surviving family due to cholera, and he was then brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. Professor Lovell brought Robin to train him in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese—even though Chinese is his first language—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, feels like a fairytale for Robin. It is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge means power. But for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, this means inevitably betraying his motherland. Robin has to decide whether he should continue to pursue knowledge and stay in Babel, or will he choose to side with the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working, which in essence, defies Babel.
“Languages are easier to forget than you imagine… Once you stop living in the world of Chinese, you stop thinking in Chinese… Words and phrases you think are carved into your bones can disappear in no time.’
The passage above speaks the truth. For those of you who don’t know, Indonesia is my first language, Chinese (Mandarin) is my second, and English is my third language. Due to my lack of usage of the Chinese language, it honestly felt like English has transformed into my second language. As you can probably guess from the title and premise of Babel, colonialism, racism, languages, translations, identities, necessities of violence, and finding a place to belong are some of the heaviest themes of Babel. Regardless of whether you love The Poppy War Trilogy or Babel more, I am filled with confidence in saying that Kuang has outdone herself with this novel.
“Translation, from time immemorial, has been the facilitator of peace. Translation makes possible communication, which in turn makes possible the kind of diplomacy, trade, and cooperation between foreign peoples that brings wealth and prosperity to all.”
There is a LOT to unpack in this standalone novel. Each of the themes I mentioned earlier was discussed with ruthless exploration. And I believe that any reader reading Babel could actually use the novel to write their own dissertation on one—or more—of the chosen themes. It felt crystal clear that Kuang has done a myriad of research, and she put them all on the pages of Babel. As a reader who speaks multiple languages, I’ve been reading, writing, thinking, or speaking in two or three languages every day. It won’t come as a surprise that I have an interest in linguistics, etymology, and translation. And Babel has them all. Done in a meticulous and addictive fashion, taking place in an alternative historical fantasy setting, Babel never cease to raise thought-provoking questions and discuss important issues with its readers.
“Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?”
What if the city of dreaming spires is, in reality, a tower leading them to an inevitable nightmare through the illusion of grandeur and greatness? Babel is not as grim as The Poppy War Trilogy. It also has a comparatively more likable main character, which I’ll get into soon. And these elements made the events and development in Babel more relatable. Look, I could talk about the plot all day long if I want to. But it is quite frankly impossible to discuss in more detail what made the themes executed in Babel so cleverly done without going into spoiler territory. The book isn’t out yet for more than two months, and I prefer leaving the best of the plot in Babel to future readers to find out for themselves. Instead, I will now proceed to elaborate upon the characters of Babel and their characterizations.
“In the years to come, Robin would return so many times to this night. He was forever astonished by its mysterious alchemy, by how easily two badly socialized, restrictively raised strangers had transformed into kindred spirits in the span of minutes.”
One of the most magnificent things about Babel is its characterizations, especially for Robin Swift. In one book, less than 700 pages long, Kuang managed to meticulously introduce and develop Robin Swift. His character development and story arc felt immense. Seriously, by the end of the novel, try to look back to the beginning of the novel, and you will see how far Robin Swift has changed. Plus, his character development never felt forced. His grief, rage, dilemma, struggles, kindness, and relatively brief moments of happiness felt so genuine. And I, several times throughout the novel, truly empathized with him. The numbers of challenges, jealousy, avarice, manipulation, and domination he has to defeat were just staggering.
“Only it builds up, doesn’t it? It doesn’t just disappear. And one day you start prodding at what you’ve suppressed. And it’s a mass of black rot, and it’s endless, horrifying, and you can’t look away.”
Fortunately, Robin was not alone in facing the cruelties pushed upon him. Accompanying him were three supporting characters: Ramy, Letty, and Victoire. This group of friends, these four characters, are individuals with distinct and different personalities, and yet circumstances allowed them to eagerly trust one another without any interrogations. Will they live happily ever after? Well, that’s for you to find out. But do know this is a novel by R.F. Kuang, and it is not a spoiler to say Kuang is going to put her characters through physically and mentally crushing pain. As the characters wait for dawn to visit them after a night of explosive discord and conflicts, I waited with bated breath with them. I was so invested in the characters, especially Robin and Victoire, and I consider it a testament to how well-written this book was that, among many other factors, ALL characters in this standalone novel felt so distinctive and compelling.
“Babel, his friends, and Oxford– they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now.”
There is also a feeling of satisfaction in reading Kuang’s novels from her debut in publication order. Kuang is an author that keeps getting better and better with each new book, and Babel is the author at the top of her game. The narrative has the potential to strike a various range of emotions, and it is delivered mercilessly. One out of many examples, and I’m going to be vague about this, there was a virtuous character who has their kindness tested too far, and we readers get to witness how deadly the malice that kindness can conjure from this. I felt distraught and conflicted by this, in a good way. But at the same time, I also felt sad, and to a level, rewarded by the turn of events. The prose continuously flows well, and the author successfully nailed the character’s development. This doesn’t mean I fully agree with the character’s actions and motivation, but I understood them. The devastations wrought to counter colonialism portrayed were bloody and vicious, and I found the narrative hard to put down. Babel asks its readers whether there is indeed morality and necessity in violence, or is it all an unnecessary and endless deadly cycle with no way out.
“Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”
Lastly, I need to mention that I have never been to Oxford or United Kingdom. In fact, I have never been outside of Asia. It remains one of my goals to visit the UK and other countries outside Asia. This is to say that Babel did not only immerse me in its memorable story, but it made me want to visit London even more. It’s such a vividly portrayed novel with incredible world-building and layered histories. Yes, Babel takes place in our world, but adding the magic of silver-making that required memories and the proficiency in languages and translations to the narrative provided a totally brilliant result in enriching the depth and complexities of the world. I seem to now have a newfound extra appreciation for translators, too. Take a look at this passage:
“I think translation can be much harder than original composition in many ways. The poet is free to say whatever he likes, you see– he can choose from any number of linguistic tricks in the language he’s composing in. Word choice, word order, sound– they all matter, and without any one of them the whole thing falls apart. That’s why Shelley writes that translating poetry is about as wise as casting a violet into a crucible.† So the translator needs to be translator, literary critic, and poet all at once– he must read the original well enough to understand all the machinery at play, to convey its meaning with as much accuracy as possible, then rearrange the translated meaning into an aesthetically pleasing structure in the target language that, by his judgment, matches the original. The poet runs untrammelled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”
Isn’t that so accurate and profound? I actually highlighted more passages in Babel compared to the entire The Poppy War Trilogy. Babel is one of the finest standalone novels I’ve read. It is a victory for literature, and its quality is what every other dark academia novel should strive to be. Paying homage to the importance of languages, translations, identity, and ethnicities, Babel is one of the most important works of the year. August 2022 will be a big month for the fantasy genre. Not only Babel is the third novel of the year so far that I rated with a full 5 out of 5 stars rating, but it will also be released in August 2022, just a week after The First Binding by R.R. Virdi, which was the second novel I rated 5 out 5 stars rating this year. With The Poppy War Trilogy and Babel as her bibliography so far, I feel assured already in declaring R.F. Kuang as one of my favorite authors of all time. A marvelous one-off fantasy standalone is frequently difficult to find. Pre-order Babel. You won’t regret it.
“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”
Where do Babel stand in my best books of the year list? To that, I’ll say:
“Mande mwen yon ti kou ankò ma di ou.”
You can order this book from: Blackwells (Free International shipping)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang”
If “The Poppy War Trilogy” is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, then I have a feeling we all know what the premise of this novel is based on as well.