Tag Archives: Alternate History

Babel by R.F. Kuang (Review by James B. ’24)

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' RevolutionBabel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly frustrating book. Definitively, I know that it was well-written and that I mostly enjoyed reading it, especially with all the little etymology lessons. Having said that, I identified some major pitfalls that made it more miss than hit for me personally.

Babel by R. F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War trilogy, is the alternate-history story of a cohort of translation students at Oxford in the 1830s, and how their struggle to be accepted in a culture that will only recognize them as foreigners lends to a greater debate on the ethics of colonization and the necessity of violence.

Whenever I’ve told someone about this book I’ve been sure to mention the full title, as I think it also serves as a rather good summary: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. Keep in mind that this is *alternative* historical fiction, so it presents events that could have happened in history but didn’t really.

The world-building is fairly strong, though I’ve heard complaints about the addition of fantasy in the way of silverworking in an already very dense book. I believe that the politics are familiar enough to the reader, and the addition of silverworking is just a device that compounds a much broader range of goods.

The plot is quite fast-paced, and surprisingly action-heavy especially towards the end of the book. Kuang does a great job of keeping the stakes high even when the main characters are just attending classes. I actually really enjoyed reading about the academic pressure the characters experience, as would any Harker student because that’s relatable to us.

The message of the novel is very important one, being about the negative impacts of colonization, racism, and cultural genocide. Having said that, there’s no nuance to how it’s delivered, as the author would seemingly rather shove it in your face at every opportunity, which makes the message a lot weaker in my opinion.

Now, the weak point of the book: the characters. Our four main characters are so lacking that at multiple points I was ready to abandon the main story entirely to learn more about the side characters.

SPOILERS AHEAD – Do not read this next section if you intend to read the book!

I would have rather read the story of Griffin, Sterling, and Evie’s love triangle and how Sterling was driven to betray the Hermes Society and murder Griffin. I would have rather read about Professor Craft and why she chose to stay in Babel tower to the very end despite being the only professor and a well-off white woman. I would have rather read about Ibrahim and Juliana’s romance, dying in each other’s arms despite their misgivings.

Instead we get Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty. Victoire, for the massive role she plays in the strike, has no defining traits as a character. Ramy is unremarkable, only defined by his death. Robin is more interesting but only because we get to know his every thought, he doesn’t really do all that much without guidance from others. Oddly enough, Letty is the most complex character, but she’s also the least likeable as the lone white person in a group full of immigrants who betrays them because she can’t understand why they aren’t grateful for being colonized. The romance between Robin and Ramy is infuriating because it’s never really touched on until Ramy dies, so we can only imagine how strong their bond was based on Robin’s overwhelming grief. I also think killing off the two queer characters before ever stating or exploring their identities is cheap and baiting. Honestly, I bought and read Babel in part because I was expecting some queer representation.

Most of the reason that these characters feel so empty is because we hardly ever get to see them interact with one another. The whole book they’re either stressed or fighting and avoiding each other, and in the rare moments that they behave like friends the author summarizes their conversations in place of actual dialogue.

Okay, I’m done.
Read this book if you’re interested in learning more about the events leading up to the Opium War or really enjoy etymology and linguistics and enjoy a strong. Do not read this book if you are a character-focused reader, or are looking for a fun dark-academia read with queer representation.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“”English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.””

“This is how colonialism works. It convinces us that the fallout from resistance is entirely our fault, that the immoral choice is resistance itself rather than the circumstances that demanded it.”

“There are no kind masters, Letty,’ Anthony continued. ‘It doesn’t matter how lenient, how gracious, how invested in your education they make out to be. Masters are masters in the end.”

Happy reading! -Review by James B. ’24

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The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (Review by Anika F. ’21)

The Gilded Wolves (The Gilded Wolves, #1)The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In an alternate 1800s France, six individuals must team up to pull off the heist of a lifetime. The thieves in question are a historian, an engineer, a performer, a gardener, and an old friend, all led by an angsty leader.

The setting is full of magic and wonder. Roshani Chokshi pulls from myths from all around the world to build a rich environment: There are references to the Bible, Greek mythology, Persian stories, and Indian deities. The words themselves are also full of magic: “History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors.” Atmospheric settings and writing are not necessarily for all readers, but the lush story really worked for me.

While the plot did feel convenient at times, the success of the book came not from the events that occurred, but rather from the characters. Six characters is a lot of one book to flesh out, but this one managed to make all of them have compelling stories and character arcs. Severin, the group’s leader, struggles with wanting revenge for a lost inheritance and also wanting to protect the members of his team. Hypnos (the old friend) and Severin both struggle with being mixed-race in a society that sees whiteness as paramount. Enrique (the historian) sees parallels to his Filipino heritage and the Spanish colonization of his people. Zofia (the engineer) learns to understand how emotions work as she feels more at home with chemical reactions than with life forms. Tristan (the gardener) looks up to Severin, but is reluctant to go on any heists. And Laila (the performer), has a secret: She’s not a “normal” girl, and in the next few months, she will die.

This book has been heavily compared to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and while the idea of having to steal something is the same, the execution is completely different. Six of Crows relies on a magic system that gives certain people (the grisha) special powers. The Gilded Wolves, however, uses logic and problem solving to complete the heist. What stood out to me is how the historian and the engineer work together to solve the puzzles. In an increasingly STEM vs humanities/social sciences world, having these two rely on each other to solve problems was so refreshing.

And if I haven’t convinced you to read this yet, the sequel The Silvered Serpents came out in late 2020, and the third book The Bronzed Beasts comes out in September 2021! —Review by Anika F. ’21

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Timekeeper by Tara Sim (review by Sofie K. ’20)

Timekeeper (Timekeeper, #1)Timekeeper by Tara Sim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Timekeeper is set in an alternate version of Victorian era England, where clocktowers (like Big Ben) in each city control the passage of time. As long as the clocks are running smoothly, so does everything else. However, if they were to stop working… that would spell trouble for the poor souls who live in that area.

Danny Hart is a clock mechanic: he is in charge of making sure the clock in Enfield is working as it should. Plagued by an event that happened to him in the past (or whenever the past is in this book), he is incredibly wary about his job. But when the mysterious apprentice he was assigned to, Colton, turns out to be the spirit of the clock he is supposed to work on, everything he think he knows about his life, career, and family changes.

With outstanding character development, a compelling diverse romance, and, hey, time travel, this book kept me hooked onto every last sentence. The storyline was incredibly unique, and Tara Sim executed it to near perfection. I look forward to following the story of Danny and Colton through the rest of the trilogy. – Sofie K. ’20

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Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh (review by Anya W. ’20)

Flame in the Mist (Flame in the Mist, #1)Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The destiny of a samurai’s daughter is to marry well to bring honor to the family. Even 17-year-old Mariko is no exception, never mind the fact that she’s smart enough to be a step or two ahead of most everyone she meets. But when her convoy to meet the betrothed her father selected for her is attacked and only Mariko survives, she knows that the only way to protect her family’s honor is to destroy the ones who attacked her. So, with no way to contact her twin brother, she sets off dressed as a boy in order to infiltrate her only lead: a bandit group called the Black Clan. The thing is… what Mariko finds is a lot closer to family. The novel definitely had some strong elements, from the premise of the plot to more realistic character reactions then some YA novels. However, the author’s attempts at creating chemistry between the protagonist and her love interest, while (refreshingly) present, were oft clumsy. Furthermore, the ending of the book, even with the clear set-up for a sequel, feels a bit rushed it would have been nice to have more time with various character and their reactions to recent plot developments. – Anya W. ’20

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11/22/63 by Stephen King (review by Simar B. ’20)

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

11/22/63 by Stephen King is a novel about Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, who travels back in time to try to save President John F. Kennedy’s life. He meets his friend Al Templeton who tells him that he has discovered a way to go back in time. However, Al is dying, and he entrusts Jake to fulfill his life mission to save President Kennedy, thinking that the world would be much better off had Kennedy survived. Jake is apprehensive but takes on Al’s mission and travels back into 1958. Jake bides his time for three years, slowly making his way to Dallas to stop the assassination. Unfortunately, time also moves on sluggishly for the reader, and it is quite difficult to not put the book aside because it drags on and on. The gist of 1000 pages is Jake bets a lot of money to sustain himself, stalks Oswald for a year, and falls in love with Sadie, a librarian in the school he teaches. It does not feel like a novel, but it feels like a biography of the fictional Jake Epping. Despite all this, the book picks up towards the end. Overall, I enjoyed this book only because of how it ended, but the casual reader might not enjoy it.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (review by Mr. Hurshman, Teacher)

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The action of this lengthy bestseller takes place in the first twenty years of the 19th century, when the two titular characters attempt a revival of magic in the British Isles. After several hundred years of dormancy, “practical magic” is making a comeback—just in time to serve England’s interests in the Napoleonic Wars—but will the resurgence prove a blessing or a curse?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the only novel of its kind that I’ve ever encountered—a work at once of fantasy and of historical fiction that nevertheless seeks to replicate the realist style and comic sensibility of authors of the century in which it’s set (think Austen or Thackeray or Dickens). In combining these elements, Clarke carries out a daring experiment that doesn’t really seem as if it should work. But the result is an unexpected alchemical triumph.

I would recommend Clarke’s novel to lovers of fantasy and lovers of 19th-century literature alike, but its ideal audience consists of those who love both. Its greatest pleasures depend on an acquaintance with the historical context that forms its backdrop and with the literary tradition that Clarke mimics and gently parodies.

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Rook by Sharon Cameron (review by Andrew R. ’17)

RookRook by Sharon Cameron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are only so many post-apocalyptic dystopia concepts that exist in the world, and, thanks to the mad rush of YA science fiction sprang into being following the enormous success of The Hunger Games, it’s almost—almost—impossible at this point for an author to come up with a brand-new one. In Rook, however, Sharon Cameron may just have pulled it off. The world that protagonists Sophia Bellamy and René Hasard inhabit is full of not-so-subtle overtones of the French Revolution, with lower-class mobs overrunning the Upper City and a massive, blood-spattered blade decapitating enemies of the state. But this isn’t eighteenth-century Paris—this is Europe hundreds of years after the polar shift that wiped out most of humanity. The loss of all pre-apocalypse technology has forced society to backtrack several centuries to a bloodier and more brutal time. The characters are almost as interesting as the setting—Sophia may be a classic YA heroine fighting off the advances of two devilishly handsome suitors, but at least the love triangle has some political intrigue to spice things up. (Nearly all the characters are benevolent criminals of some sort.) Rook is lengthy, but readers will forgive its heft once they get caught up in the engaging narrative and well-conceived setting.

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Goliath (Leviathan #3) by Scott Westerfield (review by Catherine H. ’17)

Goliath (Leviathan, #3)Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk World War I series, the Leviathan is sent to pick up a mysterious inventor who plans to stop the war with his latest device (Goliath), and Deryn’s secret is finally revealed. Once the Leviathan has transported the inventor to America, Alek meets Eddie Malone, a reporter for The New York World, and the Prince’s story and secrets are finally revealed to the world. I really couldn’t put this book down, wanting to know what was to become of Alek and Deryn, and how their relationship would develop. The book’s many plot twists, cliffhangers, and near-disasters build momentum until Alek must make his final decision: his title as emperor, or Deryn. I think this series will please fans of adventure, action, steampunk, and historical fiction and is sure to make a lasting impression.

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Behemoth (Leviathan #2) by Scott Westerfield (review by Catherine H. ’17)

Behemoth (Leviathan, #2)Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leviathan, the English Darwinists’ fabricated living airship, is on its way to Istanbul to deliver one of the mysterious Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow’s fabricated eggs when it attacks two Clanker warships and is damaged by a powerful Tesla Cannon. Alek and his men are put under scrutiny and he eventually decides to escape. He does so semi-successfully but only after one of the strange beasties hatches and bonds with him. Deryn, still disguised as Dylan, is given a secret mission to destroy kraken nets in order to allow a new beast, the Behemoth, to destroy the Clanker ships and capture the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, in the in the bustling city of Istanbul Alek becomes entangled in a revolution that may just turn the tide of the war in his favor. Because this book is filled with amazing character development and brilliant illustrations, I greatly enjoyed reading it. This is an alternate reality Steampunk World War I novel that will capture your attention for hours on end. Scott Westerfeld develops both the plot and the characters very well, and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an adventurous read.

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Timebound by Rysa Walker (review by Catherine H. ’17)

Timebound (The Chronos Files, #1)Timebound by Rysa Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rysa Walker’s Timebound, the first installment in the Chronos Files, is a very thought provoking read. Kate’s grandmother, Katherine, comes to town and announces that she is terminally ill and would like to spend more time with her granddaughter, which seems like a reasonable request. However, Kate’s mother insists that her grandmother is selfish and that she shouldn’t go. But Kate notices a strange medallion that glows a brilliant shade of blue that her mother can’t see but her grandmother can. Upon confronting her grandmother about it, she learns that her massive headaches have been caused by shifts in the timeline and that her grandfather is stuck in a different time, trying to create a religion and change history to benefit himself. Kate also finds out that this medallion is a CHRONOS key that lets her travel back in time. Before she can start training, another shift occurs and her parents disappear from the timeline, having never met each other and never having had her. She must now carry the key with her at all times or else disappear forever. It becomes her mission to go back in time and warn her grandmother so that she can restore her timeline. This book made me think about time travel in a different way. Even though there are several timelines that are mentioned, the story is straightforward and easy to follow. I recommend this book to anyone interested in time travel. – Catherine H. ‘17

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