Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang
eagle at eyrie.org
Thu Apr 13 20:12:00 PDT 2023
by R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyage
Copyright: August 2022
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford
Translators' Revolution, to give it its full title, is a standalone
dark academia fantasy set in the 1830s and 1840s, primarily in Oxford,
England. The first book of R.F. Kuang's previous trilogy, The Poppy
War, was nominated for multiple awards and won the Compton Crook Award
for best first novel. Babel is her fourth book.
Robin Swift, although that was not his name at the time, was born and
raised in Canton and educated by an inexplicable English tutor his
family could not have afforded. After his entire family dies of
cholera, he is plucked from China by a British professor and offered a
life in England as his ward. What follows is a paradise of books, a
hell of relentless and demanding instruction, and an unpredictably
abusive emotional environment, all aiming him towards admission to
Oxford University. Robin will join University College and the Royal
Institute of Translation.
The politics of this imperial Britain are almost precisely the same as
in our history, but one of the engines is profoundly different. This
world has magic. If words from two different languages are engraved on
a metal bar (silver is best), the meaning and nuance lost in
translation becomes magical power. With a careful choice of translation
pairs, and sometimes additional help from other related words and
techniques, the silver bar becomes a persistent spell. Britain's
industrial revolution is in overdrive thanks to the country's vast
stores of silver and the applied translation prowess of Babel.
This means Babel is also the only part of very racist Oxford that
accepts non-white students and women. They need translators (barely)
more than they care about maintaining social hierarchy; translation
pairs only work when the translator is fluent in both languages. The
magic is also stronger when meanings are more distinct, which is
creating serious worries about classical and European languages. Those
are still the bulk of Babel's work, but increased trade and
communication within Europe is eroding the meaning distinctions and
thus the amount of magical power. More remote languages, such as
Chinese and Urdu, are full of untapped promise that Britain's colonial
empire wants to capture. Professor Lowell, Robin's dubious benefactor,
is a specialist in Chinese languages; Robin is a potential tool for his
As Robin discovers shortly after arriving in Oxford, he is not the
first of Lowell's tools. His predecessor turned against Babel and is
trying to break its chokehold on translation magic. He wants Robin to
This is one of those books that is hard to review because it does some
things exceptionally well and other things that did not work for me.
It's not obvious if the latter are flaws in the book or a mismatch
between book and reader (or, frankly, flaws in the reader). I'll try to
explain as best I can so that you can draw your own conclusions.
First, this is one of the all-time great magical system hooks. The way
words are tapped for power is fully fleshed out and exceptionally
well-done. Kuang is a professional translator, which shows in the
attention to detail on translation pairs. I think this is the
best-constructed and explained word-based magic system I've read in
fantasy. Many word-based systems treat magic as its own separate
language that is weirdly universal. Here, Kuang does the exact
opposite, and the result is immensely satisfying.
A fantasy reader may expect exploration of this magic system to be the
primary point of the book, however, and this is not the case. It is an
important part of the book, and its implications are essential to the
plot resolution, but this is not the type of fantasy novel where the
plot is driven by character exploration of the magic system. The magic
system exists, the characters use it, and we do get some crunchy
details, but the heart of the book is elsewhere. If you were expecting
the typical relationship of a fantasy novel to its magic system, you
may get a bit wrong-footed.
Similarly, this is historical fantasy, but it is the type of historical
fantasy where the existence of magic causes no significant differences.
For some people, this is a pet peeve; personally, I don't mind that
choice in the abstract, but some of the specifics bugged me.
The villains of this book assert that any country could have done what
Britain did in developing translation magic, and thus their hoarding of
it is not immoral. They are obviously partly lying (this is a classic
justification for imperialism), but it's not clear from the book how
they are lying. Technologies (and magic here works like a technology)
tend to concentrate power when they require significant capital
investment, and tend to dilute power when they are portable and easy to
teach. Translation magic feels like the latter, but its effect in the
book is clearly the former, and I was never sure why.
England is not an obvious choice to be a translation superpower. Yes,
it's a colonial empire, but India, southeast Asia, and most certainly
Africa (the continent largely not appearing in this book) are home to
considerably more languages from more wildly disparate families than
western Europe. Translation is not a peculiarly European idea, and this
magic system does not seem hard to stumble across. It's not clear why
England, and Oxford in particular, is so dramatically far ahead. There
is some sign that Babel is keeping the mechanics of translation magic
secret, but that secret has leaked, seems easy to develop
independently, and is simple enough that a new student can perform
basic magic with a few hours of instruction. This does not feel like
the kind of power that would be easy to concentrate, let alone to the
extreme extent required by the last quarter of this book.
The demand for silver as a base material for translation magic provides
a justification for mercantilism that avoids the confusing complexities
of currency economics in our actual history, so fine, I guess, but it
was a bit disappointing for this great of an idea for a magic system to
have this small of an impact on politics.
I'll come to the actual thrust of this book in a moment, but first
something else Babel does exceptionally well: dark academia.
The remainder of Robin's cohort at Oxford is Remy, a dark-skinned
Muslim from Calcutta; Victoire, a Haitian woman raised in France; and
Letty, the daughter of a British admiral. All of them are non-white
except Letty, and Letty and Victoire additionally have to deal with the
blatant sexism of the time. (For example, they have to live several
miles from Oxford because women living near the college would be a
The interpersonal dynamics between the four are exceptionally well
done. Kuang captures the dislocation of going away to college, the
unsettled life upheaval that makes it both easy and vital to form
suddenly tight friendships, and the way that the immense pressure from
classes and exams leaves so devoid of spare emotional capacity that
those friendships become both unbreakable and badly strained. Robin and
Remy almost immediately become inseparable in that type of college
friendship in which profound trust and constant companionship happen
first and learning about the other person happens afterwards.
It's tricky to talk about this without spoilers, but one of the things
Kuang sets up with this friend group is a pointed look at
intersectionality. Babel has gotten a lot of positive review buzz, and
I think this is one of the reasons why. Kuang does not pass over or
make excuses for characters in a place where many other books do. This
mostly worked for me, but with a substantial caveat that I think you
may want to be aware of before you dive into this book.
Babel is set in the 1830s, but it is very much about the politics of
2022. That does not necessarily mean that the politics are off for the
1830s; I haven't done the research to know, and it's possible I'm
seeing the Tiffany problem (Jo Walton's observation that Tiffany is a
historical 12th century women's name, but an author can't use it as a
medieval name because readers think it sounds too modern). But I found
it hard to shake the feeling that the characters make sense of their
world using modern analytical frameworks of imperialism, racism,
sexism, and intersectional feminism, although without using modern
terminology, and characters from the 1830s would react somewhat
differently. This is a valid authorial choice; all books are written
for the readers of the time when they're published. But as with magical
systems that don't change history, it's a pet peeve for some readers.
If that's you, be aware that's the feel I got from it.
The true center of this book is not the magic system or the history.
It's advertised directly in the title — the necessity of violence —
although it's not until well into the book before the reader knows what
that means. This is a book about revolution, what revolution means,
what decisions you have to make along the way, how the personal affects
the political, and the inadequacy of reform politics. It is hard,
uncomfortable, and not gentle on its characters.
The last quarter of this book was exceptional, and I understand why
it's getting so much attention. Kuang directly confronts the desire for
someone else to do the necessary work, the hope that surely the people
with power will see reason, and the feeling of despair when there are
no good plans and every reason to wait and do nothing when atrocities
are about to happen. If you are familiar with radical politics, these
aren't new questions, but this is not the sort of thing that normally
shows up in fantasy. It does not surprise me that Babel struck a nerve
with readers a generation or two younger than me. It captures that
heady feeling on the cusp of adulthood when everything is in flux and
one is assembling an independent politics for the first time. Once I
neared the end of the book, I could not put it down. The ending is
brutal, but I think it was the right ending for this book.
There are two things, though, that I did not like about the political
The first is that Victoire is a much more interesting character than
Robin, but is sidelined for most of the book. The difference of
perspectives between her and Robin is the heart of what makes the end
of this book so good, and I wish that had started 300 pages earlier.
Or, even better, I wish Victoire has been the protagonist; I liked
Robin, but he's a very predictable character for most of the book.
Victoire is not; even the conflicts she had earlier in the book, when
she didn't get much attention in the story, felt more dynamic and more
thoughtful than Robin's mix of guilt and anxiety.
The second is that I wish Kuang had shown more of Robin's intellectual
evolution. All of the pieces of why he makes the decisions that he does
are present in this book, and Kuang shows his emotional state
(sometimes in agonizing detail) at each step, but the sense-making, the
development of theory and ideology beneath the actions, is hinted at
but not shown. This is a stylistic choice with no one right answer, but
it felt odd because so much of the rest of the plot is obvious and
telegraphed. If the reader shares Robin's perspective, I think it's
easy to fill in the gaps, but it felt odd to read Robin giving clearly
thought-out political analyses at the end of the book without seeing
the hashing-out and argument with friends required to develop those
analyses. I felt like I had to do a lot of heavy lifting as the reader,
work that I wish had been done directly by the book.
My final note about this book is that I found much of it extremely
predictable. I think that's part of why reviewers describe it as
accessible and easy to read; accessibility and predictability can be
two sides of the same coin. Kuang did not intend for this book to be
subtle, and I think that's part of the appeal. But very few of Robin's
actions for the first three-quarters of the book surprised me, and
that's not always the reading experience I want. The end of the book is
different, and I therefore found it much more gripping, but it takes a
while to get there.
Babel is, for better or worse, the type of fantasy where the politics,
economics, and magic system exist primarily to justify the plot the
author wanted. I don't think the societal position of the Institute of
Translation that makes the ending possible is that believable given the
nature of the technology in question and the politics of the time, and
if you are inclined to dig into the specifics of the world-building, I
think you will find it frustrating. Where it succeeds brilliantly is in
capturing the social dynamics of hothouse academic cohorts, and in
making a sharp and unfortunately timely argument about the role of
violence in political change, in a way that the traditionally
conservative setting of fantasy rarely does.
I can't say Babel blew me away, but I can see why others liked it so
much. If I had to guess, I'd say that the closer one is in age to the
characters in the book and to that moment of political identity
construction, the more it's likely to appeal.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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