Friday, May 6, 2022



Rating: 5/5 stars 

Babel was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and it did not disappoint in the slightest. In fact, I’ve found a new favorite, and I will never be the same after reading this. 

I love dark academia stories, I got my degree in linguistics, I visited Oxford during my study abroad in the UK, and I love fantasy novels. So when I found out this standalone dark academia fantasy set at Oxford featured language itself as the magic system, I was immensely intrigued. And it’s by R. F. Kuang no less. I read and enjoyed—but didn’t love—her Poppy War trilogy, but her skill at writing is so incredible that I was very much looking forward to seeing what other stories she released. 

Babel is a historical fantasy set in the 1830s mostly at Oxford. It follows Robina multi-lingual Chinese boy who was brought to London by his English professor to learn the secrets of silver working at Oxfordand the rest of his cohort as they study at the translators’ college, a tower called Babel, where each floor is dedicated to a different linguistic specialty. 

I love how heavily this novel leans into academia. It is dark academia after all—and while it is dark, it is very academic. It’s not just a setting or an aesthetic here; the academia is woven into every facet of the story. The characters spend so much time studying and going to classes and immersing themselves so wholly in their education that it almost consumes them. They learn about history and etymology and politics, and in turn, I also learned about history and etymology and politics. It didn’t feel contrived or included just for the academic ~vibes~ but it felt real. 

We also got to see the dark side of academia and how it is not always as glamorous as it seems. R. F. Kuang perfectly juxtaposes the allure and presumed beauty of the academic life with the terrifying reality that institutions will do anything to gain and maintain their knowledge. Kuang herself said that this book is both a love letter and a breakup letter to Oxford, where she studied for her undergrad. Her knowledge of the campus really shines through. It is written in a way that I feel like the characters actually intimately know it rather than feeling like a generic college campus. Kuang’s research and experiences were imperative in her writing of Babel and it turning out as immaculately as it did. 

This is a very intellectual book, and I loved that so much. The magic system is built upon languages and words’ multiple meanings across different languages, combined with silver working. The silver, in turn, powers the entire nation. It was all incredibly cool to see. 

“We capture what is lost in translationfor there is always something lost in translationand the [silver] bar manifests it into being.” 

Babel is slow-moving but still endlessly engaging. I was finding time to read it during every spare moment I could because I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen with my characters. Even though I knew it couldn’t end well, I also couldn’t look away. 

Like The Poppy WarBabel focuses on themes of colonization and to what extent the colonizers will go in order to maintain power and pride. The true triumph of this book is Kuang’s brilliant discourse on colonialism, which is both astounding and harrowing and true. Her skill at showing the world the horrors that the human race can inflict on each other is second to none that I’ve read. 

R. F. Kuang has a talent for writing about characters who don’t belong, who exist in a place where the majority of people would rather them not be, but who deserve to be there and who triumph because of it. This is the nature of those being colonized—the oppressors want their land and their resources and their skills, but they don’t want the people. And you see this in Babel. Robin is Chinese, Ramy is Indian, and Victoire is Haitian, and the white people at Oxford constantly question their presence and speak to them like they’re lesser humans. They’re not welcomed into certain buildings on campus or invited into certain groups, but the translators need their abilities to translate languages to make the silver bars work. The colonizers need their abilities but they don’t need them. 

This book being written from the eyes of someone who feels like an other, who doesn’t seem to belong, is profoundly enlightening. It’s a sad feeling. But it’s also a true feeling for many in history and many in the present. 

Those interested in history, colonization, languages, linguistics, translation theory, etymology, academic settings, and magic will enjoy Babel. But everyone should read this book regardless. Babel should be required reading for all academics around the world. It’s just too incredible to miss, and it is R. F. Kuang’s best work yet. I loved it so, so much, and I can’t wait to buy myself a beautiful finished hardcover copy when it releases in August. Do yourself a favor and let this book destroy you. 

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