... educates and urges us to reframe—to (re)translate—the dominant narrative of what the West calls its civilization. Babel, brilliant both in concept and execution, is a page-turner with footnotes, a thriller with a higher purpose, a Bildungsroman where the stakes matter. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts, or The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Babel is a necessary, timely rebuttal to current misreadings of history, and, like them, does so with innovative use of narrative forms and by redefining the nature of historical evidence. Having wept at the ending (no spoilers, but the epilogue offers a glimpse of hope and a likely sequel), I anticipate this important book sparking discussion, both about the novel qua novel and as a contribution to debates over how to remove and repair systemic global inequality and oppression ... Kuang creates an alternative world that reveals the power dynamics of our own history more trenchantly than do most histories on the non-fiction shelf. Babel may take place in a calque of the Regency and early Victorian eras but it is no costume drama, no play of light on the sunny uplands of misbegotten nostalgia. Kuang briskly demolishes the edifice of cruelty, cant, and racism with such erudition as to be undeniable, and with such provision of engaging characters as to make enlightenment unavoidable ... The depth and reach of what Babel covers delights as it informs ... I was immersed from the first sentence ... a mighty example of what Hartman calls 'critical fabulation,' retelling a story—or helping us understand why some stories may be impossible to tell within genres defined and patrolled by those in power—through cross-linking emancipatory theory, speculative fiction, and interrogation of archival evidence, including the elisions, silenced voices, and falsehoods archives contain ... Kuang brings to life and makes visible what typically lies inert and truncated in traditional textbooks, or is missing from the curriculum altogether. Read Babel both for its derring-do and buddy adventure and for its nuanced but searing focus on how language drives power and maintains oppression.
[Kuang] has generally outdone herself with her latest effort, the dark academia standalone novel Babel ... Babel is a tremendous effort—a meticulously researched period piece, a primal scream from the traditionally unheard, and a story of friendship gone horribly wrong. But its determination to make sure its (admittedly important) message is heard, means a significant chunk of this doorstopper’s 500+ pages feels didactic and lecture-y, rather than fully transformative ... The searing honesty with which Kuang depicts what life would have been like for non-white, non-native Oxford students is commendable—and frequently uncomfortable because this is not a book that pulls any punches when it comes to what the rich, white men who hold power in England think of those who are not like them ... Babel is an incredible feat of writing, mixing etymology, history, and linguistics in a way that often feels akin to alchemy. Its prose is beautiful, perhaps never more so than when it’s at its most obviously academic, delving deep into the meaning and lineage of specific words and waxing poetic about the transformative power of language ... Babel is deeply concerned with colonization, racism, and empire, with what is lost when we absorb languages and cultures not our own with little respect or care for the people who created them. It wrestles with the idea of what we owe to one another ... But while Babel trusts its audience to be able to wrestle with complex questions of linguistics and identity, the novel seems nervous that readers will not be able to fully grasp its themes of oppression and prejudice without help ... Babel is absolutely the most ambitious fantasy novel you’ll read this year. It’s a book with plenty of flaws, but its obvious depth of research, lovely prose, fascinating linguistic-based magical system, and utter dedication to giving voice to sorts of topics we rarely see tackled at this level of depth in this genre make it a book that’s worth your time.
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This is a scholarly book by a superb scholar – Kuang is a translator herself. The pages are heavy with footnotes; not the more usual whimsical ones, in the style of Susanna Clarke or Terry Pratchett, but academic notes, hectoring and preachy in a parody of the 19th-century tomes Swift and his friends at Oxford must study. The characters’ conversation flies from theories of translation to quotations from Sanskrit, from Dryden to the authors of the Shijing; they are pretentious, but vulnerable too, and the balance is lovely ... The fantastical elements underpin real history, rather than alter it ... Even against a whole background of clever things, the triumph here is the narrator ... This is a grim and harrowing novel; many of the characters have poisonous opinions about race, and Swift becomes increasingly embittered. The antagonists are closer to demons than humans, with no nuance, and they do sickening things. Often the allure of fantasy is escape from the real world, but there’s no escape here; Kuang’s use of the genre does not soften real history but sharpens it. Babel asks what people from colonised countries are supposed to do when they reach positions of power – while being set in a time and place where reaching those positions would, in the real world, have been impossible. It is a fantastically made work, moving and enraging by turns, with an ending to blow down walls.
Engaging ... Her richly descriptive stand-alone novel about an ever-expanding, alternate-world empire powered by magically enhanced silver talismans scrutinizes linguistics, history, politics, and the social customs of Victorian-era Great Britain ... Fans of in-depth historical fantasy will be delighted with Kuang’s latest.
A nuanced adventure that also serves as a critique of Western colonialism ... The novel is also an atmospheric and complex narrative with compelling characters. Kuang builds on the success of her Poppy War trilogy and academic studies and prompts readers to question the ethics of both empire and academia ... Kuang is a refreshing and essential voice in fiction, and her latest will have wide appeal.
A methodical, unforgiving examination of the cost of power and the pain of achieving it ... Babel feels different from her first trilogy, but this is undoubtedly a Kuang novel. There's a sense of inevitability in her work, each book moving toward a climactic breaking point.
Kuang underwhelms with a didactic, unsubtle take on dark academia and imperialism ... This brilliant, ambitious concept falters in execution, reading more like a postcolonial social history than a proper novel. The narrative is frequently interrupted by lectures on why imperialism is bad, not trusting the reader or the plot itself enough to know that this message will be clear from the events as they unfold. Kuang assumes an audience that disagrees with her, and the result keeps readers who are already aware of the evils of racism and empire at arm’s length. The characters, meanwhile, often feel dubiously motivated. Readers will be drawn in by the fascinating, linguistic magic system and righteous stance, but many will come away frustrated.
Kuang draws a keen parallel between extracting knowledge and extracting resources, examining the terrible power of systems built on inequality and the uncomfortable experiences of the marginalized within those systems, whether due to race or gender. While occasionally hampered by rather self-aware critiques of colonialism, in general this is an expansive, sympathetic, and nevertheless scathing critique of Western imperialism and how individuals are forced to make their peace with the system and survive or to fight back and face the consequences. It's ambitious and powerful while displaying a deep love of language and literature ... Dark academia as it should be.