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Book Review: Language, power, and an explosive revolution in “Babel”

If you haven’t read R.F. Kuang’s epic fantasy series “The Poppy War,” get to your nearest bookstore ASAP, but if you already have, then you’re in the right place. Kuang’s highly anticipated dark academia, urban fantasy “Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution” is a mouthful of a title. Still, this novel is deserving of an illustrious title.

Orphaned by the cholera epidemic, Robin Swift is whisked away from his homeland and brought to London by the stoic Professor Lovell. As his childhood and teenage years pass, Robin is trained in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for his future enrollment in Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel.

Robin is swept up in the magic of translation and silver-working: the art of manifesting meanings lost in translation through silver bars, which is the source of the British Empire’s power. As his studies progress, Robin is caught between his work at Babel and the Hermes Society–an organization sabotaging the empire’s silver-work that powers its imperialism. An unjust war between Britain and China over silver and opium lies on the horizon. Robin finds himself tangled up in a revolution that begs the question: can a revolution be fought from within, or only with violence?

Kuang is a master in world-building, and “Babel” doesn’t disappoint. Set mainly in Oxford, the novel had an almost cinematic quality–intricately detailed, realistic, and otherworldly, even if you’ve seen pictures of Oxford. The lore and translation explanations Robin uses throughout the book aren’t haphazardly strewn about or half-assed–Kuang manages to incorporate them seamlessly but was occasionally an info dump.

The motley crew of characters mirrored Kuang’s found family in “The Poppy War” series, yet were much more relatable and nuanced than the series. Ramy, Victoire, and Letty’s friendship with Robin are reminiscent of anyone who finds their people in college but shows the deep fractures that colonialism, race, and gender have on relationships–even in the 1800s.

As the novel progresses, Kuang weaves revolutionary and feminist discourses as a guiding principle and teaching moment for Robin and his friends as they discover the insidious ways of imperial Britain. These conversations are written starkly and without mincing any words for readers–something other authors should note when writing about the horrors of imperialism in fiction. If you didn’t learn something while reading “Babel,” did you really read it?

As much as this novel is about colonial resistance and imperialism, “Babel” is an observation of friendships and the boundaries we must make to protect ourselves. Inspiring, dark, and wonderfully immersive, “Babel” and Kuang’s “The Poppy War” series mirror contemporary conversations about colonial resistance and the need for violence for a revolution to succeed. If you care about bringing down the world's imperial powers, “Babel” is a must-read.

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