Published: Harper Voyager, August 2022
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
"Translation in it's essence, is always an act of betrayal."
I unfortunately (again) am part of the minority opinion with another R.F. Kuang-novel, and nobody is more disappointed than me myself. I feel like neither this book, nor the author need much introduction at this point, so I’m keeping this first section brief. Babel is the start of Kuang’s second historical fantasy series, following the widely popular The Poppy War. This time, we leave the realm of miliary fantasy for a dark academia-setting with a magic-system based in translation and language. Robin Swift, a young orphan on the streets of Canton, China, is adopted by a wealthy English professor who offers him the opportunity that many like him would’ve killed for. A privileged life among Oxfords elite, in exchange for Robin’s full dedication to the art of studying languages in order to enrol in the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation - also known as Babel. What follows is a tale of betrayal, crushed dreams, oppressive academic pressure, colonialism and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
What I liked:
I enjoyed Babel infinitely more than I did The Poppy War, part due to the impressive growth in quality as a writer that Kuang shows, and partly due to the fact that the academic setting and magic-system are far more up my alley than the military-one. Although it covers many of the same story beats, themes and messages, I liked the format in which they were delivered more within Babel.
First of all: I love the trope of language-based magic and I love the spin Kuang put on it. Having a keen interest in translation myself, I resonated a lot with the challenges the characters faced within it. From the struggle to put the ineffable into words, to the subtleties lost in translation, as no two word have the exact same “wordvalue” and emotional connotation to them. You can tell that this is a topic that Kuang is intimately familiar and deeply passionate about, and her enthusiasm is catching. Because of the nature of the magic system I highly recommend the audiobook; hearing the foreign languages being spoken out loud absolutely added to the experience for me, even though the pronunciation of the few Dutch words that were in it were abhorrent. I also liked the way the footnotes were handled within the audiobook, read by a different narrator, but within the actual text. Had I just read the physical book, I might have skipped many of the footnotes altogether.
Another thing that Kuang is clearly intimately familiar with is the academic setting; from the physical portrayal of the streets of Oxford, to the crushing nature of academic pressure, and the intimate friendships formed under that pressure. Despite not loving the main cast on an individual basis (more on that later), I liked their interactions and the mood amongst them. It gave me vibes of Vita Nostra and a little bit of Golden Trio from a series that shall no longer be named.
What I didn’t like:
In short: the astounding lack of subtlety in the plot and central messages. The central statement about colonialism that is being made is a valuable one, but it’s clear from even the blurb alone what that statement will be. Over the course of almost 600 pages, it is repeated over-and-over again, without adding further nuance of deeper exploration.
Repetition is another issue that this book runs into. Despite the passion for the messages and the exploration of the nuances of a language-based magic, the book could’ve benefitted from killing some of its darlings, and the third/fourth/fifth repetition of a similar thing would’ve been best left on the cutting room floor.
The same lack of depth and subtlety is present within the characters. We have a very black-and-white (no pun intended!) division between the “good” and “bad” side of the argument. On the one side we have enlightened, intelligent and altruistic heroes that basically embody 21st-century ideals of inclusivity and equity, despite growing up in 19th century England. On the other hand, we have cartoonishly evil villains; all the physical embodiment of white-oppression. And I mean that physical part literally, which is where it becomes a little problematic. Our heroes are all people of colour, and literally every white character is portrayed to be a narcissistic and elitist racist. There’s a point to be made for the cultural, subconscious racism of society of the time, but still; going to this extreme with the divide feels not only counterproductive, but bordering on some prejudice in itself.
There’s even a twist near the end that I won’t spoil, but which hits the final nail within this coffin and almost made me throw the book across the room.
Overall, I’ve seen this book being hailed as a masterpiece, but I’d like to add the modifier of “flawed masterpiece”. As always though, take my opinions with a grain of salt and feel free to form your own, as I seem to be within the minority here.