Babel is a historical fantasy novel exploring the importance of translation in colonialism and the ways in which power manifests both in academia and in the world. Robin Swift was taken from his home in Canton to England by a mysterious guardian after his mother’s death, learning Latin and Greek in preparation for the future his guardian has planned for him at Oxford’s Royal Institution of Translation, Babel. It seems a haven, a place where Robin makes a group of close friends and despite the huge workload, finds happiness. However, it starts to become clear that Babel may not be such a haven after all, and the implications of the translation work and the silver-working magic that translation allows have dark and far-reaching consequences.
The concept of this novel is fantastic, centred around ideas of translation and how they could both evoke magic (by having translations that have slightly different meanings, bringing in something extra) and be used as tools of power and colonisation. The dark academia type setting (being set in the nineteenth century makes it different to most of the popular dark academia books, but it definitely tries to expose the dark side of academia) will bring it a lot of appeal, and the narrative centres around four main characters, with Robin the protagonist but his friends Ramy, Victoire and Letty being crucial to the story, which makes it engaging despite the huge amount of heavy academic linguistic content.
Reading the book on Kindle I wasn’t quite aware how long it is, and I will say that you really feel the length. For me, it did drag at times, and though the length is partly due to the writing style and use of footnotes to elaborate, maybe the pacing didn’t quite work for me. In terms of the style, I really liked the third person removed narrative style, which matched the academic nature and allowed for a lot of context (it’s clearly a heavily researched novel). The footnotes I was less keen on, as a lot of them served to make obvious points and took you away from the story. It was clever, though, that they were used to explain the racist attitudes of people cited/mentioned as a sharp commentary on the people in the novel who believed in translation, but still saw the languages they needed for silver-working or trade as lesser and the people who spoke them very much so.
The language used to discuss race, class, and gender was at times strangely modern for a novel that was so placed in a historical setting, which occasionally felt too notable to be ignored, but in general the book engaged interestingly with the historical setting. It’s quite different to something like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which integrates magic fully into its historical setting, as in Babel the silver-working element, which is the only fantasy part, is more of a structure that impacts the workings of the country, but not in ways that make it particularly different than in real life. Personally, as someone who isn’t really a fantasy fan, I enjoyed this, and I was pleasantly surprised that the book was much more about translation and academia than magic.
The depiction of Oxford is an interesting one, with some brilliant commentary and satirical jibes atthe attitudes of different kinds of people within the University and an accurate depiction through the Babel institute of the kinds of workloads and the ways in which people end up cocooned from the outside world. Even though Babel is fictional, and Kuang’s opening author’s note explains a range of inaccuracies with the Oxford depiction specifically, it did feel pretty true to life. Occasionally there was too much day to day university stuff which slowed the pace down, but at the same time that is what people are probably looking for from something marketed as dark academia. What was perhaps strangest was that the changes to the realities of Oxford (like having a somewhat anachronistic commemoration ball with oysters served at it) were only explained in the author’s note, and not made a feature based on being an alternative history with the silver-working magic integrated into it.
There’s a lot to say about Babel, as it has a lot to say both in terms of length and content. Generally, it’s an engaging and insightful read that, as a fan of dark academia and not so much fantasy, I enjoyed. There’s plenty of other things I’ve not even gone into in this review in the book (like arguments about models of resistance and protest, violence and non-violence) and it combines the academic and conceptual concepts like ideas of translation, languages, and power with a good story about a group of friends finding their way at Oxford.