Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History

- R.F. Kuang


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?



By the time Professsor Richard Lovell found his way through Canton’s narrow alleys to the faded address in his diary, the boy was the only one in the house left alive.


almost perfect:

You're in the place where magic is made. It's got all the trappings of a modern university, but at its heart, Babel isn't so different from the alchemists' lairs of old. But unlike the alchemists, we've actually figured out the key to the transformation of a thing. It's not in the material substance. It's in the name.

Babel already feels like a classic (which is probably why it took me almost a week to read it), but it has to be one of my favourite dark academia reads so far.

If only one could engrave entire memories in silver, thought Robin, to be manifested again and again for years to come - not the cruel distortion of the daguerreotype, but a pure and impossible distillation of emotions and sensations. For simple ink on paper was not enough to describe this golden afternoon; the warmth of uncomplicated friendship, all fights forgotten, all sins forgiven; the sunlight melting away the memory of the classroom chill; the sticky taste of lemon on their tongues and their startled, delighted relief.

It’s impossible not to get swept up in the daily academic life of this foursome. The idyllic setting, the privileged experience, the hopeful future if only they study and learn and succeed. The friendships formed when all you do is live and breathe academia and the connection that comes from sharing a purpose and a goal come to life. I loved these moments, revelled in them, and never wanted them to end. But everything ends, and when you’re a second-class citizen being groomed to serve the empire, things aren’t destined to end well.

But what he felt was not as simple as revolutionary flame. What he felt in his heart was not conviction so much as doubt, resentment, and a deep confusion.
He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it - because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.

In my very humble opinion, Babel has two significant problems. First, there’s a severe lack of nuance that is hard to ignore. White people are racist and people of colour are enlightened and accepting; that’s where the line is drawn with no deviation. Apparently, the colour of your skin determines the type of person you are in this world. Second, for a historical England powered by magical silver – how is it seemingly exactly the same as the historical England of our world? Shouldn’t there be steampunk-like advancements? Or some kind of speculative alternative history sci-fi components that make it a bit more futuristic? It’s magical silver!! Something doesn’t add up there.

Robin wondered then how much of Anthony's life had been spent carefully translating himself to white people, how much of his genial, affable polish was an artful construction to fit a particular idea of a Black man in white England and to afford himself maximum access within an institution like Babel. And he wondered if there would ever be a day that came when all of this was unnecessary, when white people would look at him and Anthony and simply listen, when their words would have worth and value because they were uttered, when they would not have to hide who they were, when they wouldn't have to go through endless distortions just to be understood.

I’ve seen some complaints about Kuang’s use of footnotes. Some have argued they overreach or act to bridge gaps left in the writing or to pander to the reader. Overall I thought they were well placed, adding context as needed and perspective in a few places where it didn’t make sense for the character to have the information, but it was nice to know as the reader. I didn’t find them overwhelming, and most of the time, was happy to see one coming.

I don’t think I will ever be happy with the lack of closure. I understand why it was done, and I can appreciate the writing, the story, and the open-endedness, but I will forever be somewhat unsatisfied.
I wish this was a series. Kuang has created a vibrant alternate history, and I’d be happy to read more, either before or after the events of this book. Both directions seem rich with possible stories and I can only hope she revisits Babel or these characters in the future.

'History isn't a premade tapestry that we've got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.'
'You really believe that,' said Robin, amazed. Griffin's faith astounded him. For Robin, such abstract reasoning was a reason to divest from the world, to retreat into the safety of dead languages and books. For Griffin, it was a rallying call.


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