Published by Harper Collins AU, Harper Voyager on 7 September 2022
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
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Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all 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, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
With a title like Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, you can already tell that this isn’t going to be an easy, quick read. The title already reads like an encyclopaedia or PhD thesis and the subject matter already stretches the brain.
Let me tell you, I was totally not prepared going into Babel. As a huge fan of The Poppy War series, I didn’t know what to expect with the delve into the dark academia genre, but let me tell you…R.F. Kuang does it with gusto and flair.
She definitely has a way with words, as her prose and word choice is just a joy to read.
Dark Academia – A Glimpse of Oxford University
Reading Babel threw me into Oxford, surrounded by tall historical spires, walking the picturesque streets while glimpsing other students in academic robe-like attire. It had me anticipating the excitement of meeting my other classmates, making new friends in my cohort and the awe and wonder of being accepted by the most prestigious university in the world. It also stretches the brain cells, as not only do you feel the excitement of learning the subjects of translation, speech and etymology, but you actually get to read lectures on the topic yourself.
It’s clear that the author has a real passion on this subject and Babel is written with flair and expertise.
I did struggle with the multi-page lectures on the topic, as the professors within Oxford will deliver their teachings with gusto, but I was glad I really stuck with it. The novel really takes its time to explore not only the Oxford setting of Babel, but Britain and it’s stake on the magical silver properties, and the students who run this resource for the whole empire.
It also takes its time in really setting out the excitement and relationship between Robin and his cohort at Babel – also known as “Babblers”.
Our translation cohort
We have our main character Robin, the studious, quiet observer who was plucked from poverty in Canton. He is joined by Ramy, Victoire, and Letty – who are each brilliant in their own way, but also with varying attitudes on their position at Babel and their stance. Through these four characters, we see friendship, camaraderie, and might I say love. But soon, a fissure apppears between them due to where they are from, the languages they speak and the colour of their skin. I love these soft academia types and enjoyed their interactions with each other, but there’s definitely not romance in Babel to look forward to.
When everything isn’t as it seems
Once all the excitement, pizzazz and novelty wears off of being a Babbler, they slowly come to witness the insidious nature of Babel itself. We learn of a secret society, Hermes, who steals the precious Silver bars that are protected by university wards and funnels it to other countries who need its power. Like Robin, you wonder if Hermes even exists at all, but stay tuned, reader as all your questions will be answered by the end.
After the halfway mark, Babel takes a deep dive into colonization, revolution, the microaggressions throughout the novel and the consequences of taking advantage of minorities for furthering your own agenda. My heart ached at some of the scenes within and I was left completely shaken at the conclusion of Babel.
With a touch of magic, prestige and academia, Babel explores the dark and insidious nature of Western institutions of power – particularly when it comes to colonisation. It’s a book describing the mounting anger and rage over the inequalities that minorities can experience. Intelligent, expertly written and filled with social injustice, Babel will shake you to your very core as you reach the very last page. I know I definitely had a reading slump afterwards!
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Thanks to HarperCollins Australia for sending me a review copy.
Babel is out now in Australian bookstores for RRP$32.99 or from The Book Depository.
Trigger warnings: racism, self harm, suicidal thoughts, child abuse, death and grief
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