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