Babel

by R. F. Kuang

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a historical fantasy epic that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British Empire

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. The tower and its students are the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver-working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as the arcane craft serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping 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?

My Take

I was not prepared for such anger. I don’t know why, I read The Poppy Wars. Perhaps because the novel was structured like a book from 1800s but the subject matter was definitely not 1800s. The anger was not there in the beginning, but gradually built, which felt real. I left wanting to know more about Victoire.

This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on colonialism. I found the magic system interesting as a way to represent knowledge and technology. Since like the author I’m kind of a nerd about languages — though I don’t have anywhere near the expertise — I found the focus on linguistics and translation fascinating.