Review: Babel

I have no doubt that anyone who has been in the book community or following the anticipated releases of 2022 would’ve heard of Babel by R.F. Kuang.

As at the time of writing this post, Babel has already won the 2022 Barnes & Noble Speculative Fiction Award, and is also a finalist for both the 2022 Barnes & Noble Book of the Year and 2022 Waterstones Book of the Year. It's also been nominated for the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2022. All I can say is: Very Well Deserved.

I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon of reading hyped new releases. Many hyped books I find interesting simply end up on my TBR list, never to be picked up, lol. But there was just something about Babel — the premise of it, or the magnificent special editions that drew my eye? — that made this the book that I’ve been most eager to read this year since I first heard about it a couple of months ago.

I’d read the first book of The Poppy War trilogy before, so I knew Kuang’s writing would be brilliant. But Babel seemed like a completely different genre in an entirely different setting so, really, I went into this not knowing what to expect at all.

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.

Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift. Until it became a prison… but can a student stand against an empire?

An incendiary new novel from award-winning author R.F. Kuang about the power of language, the violence of colonialism, and the sacrifices of resistance.

When I heard that this book was about 'linguistics' and 'translation' and 'academia'… they all summed up to a simple three letters for me: DRY.

I am someone who easily finds books long, slow and dry. Take ACOTAR, for example, which took me multiple attempts during the course of maybe two years for me to slog through the first few chapters, before I became deeply addicted and binged the entire series. Crescent City, again, was an utter pain for me to slog through for the first 20–30%, before it became a masterpiece in my mind. All that is to say, even with many books I end up absolutely loving, I usually take some time to get into the story.

Well, that wasn't the case for me Babel, which I’d expected to be dry, yet it was anything but.

From the beginning, it was one of those rare books that I actually wanted to read slowly, so I could savour every word from the masterful Kuang. There is so much in this story (colonialism, slavery, racism, to name a few) and the magic system is so original.

I loved the characters. I loved that this is a standalone book, especially in current times where there’s an implicit requirement that every fantasy be dragged out into a duology, trilogy or more, even when there’s no need for it. I even loved the regular use of parentheses and footnotes — whoever said those shouldn’t be used in fiction? I also think this may be the first English fantasy story I’ve ever read which features an Asian male lead.

There were a few things I would’ve liked to see fleshed out a bit more or explained better, including the ending. This is the reason I deducted a tiny little 0.5 from my rating, though admittedly it made little difference for my enjoyment.

Spoiler Alert!

I didn’t understand how in this story, China (historically a powerful country with plenty of dialects and intelligent scholars) could have a silver surplus but be so technologically far behind England. This is explained in the book by the Chinese having an aversion towards the foreign, but again this makes little sense because China would surely have understood the power of silver and have tried to harness it by learning foreign languages.

Regardless, it was an incredibly enjoyable read, and is the first fantasy I’ve enjoyed in a long, long time that features no romance. I love romantasy and will usually avoid fantasy stories with no romantic elements, so that says a lot about how good the story itself is.

This was also the first ever dark academia book I’ve read, and it’s definitely made me want to read more. (I moved from this book to A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, which I also thoroughly enjoyed!)

Completed: 26 October 2022

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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