1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. He trains for years in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire's quest for colonization.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 where his loyalties lie.
... 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.
Babel has earned tremendous praise and deserves all of it. It’s Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass by way of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season: inventive and engaging, passionate and precise. Kuang is fiercely disciplined even when she’s playful and experimental: In an author’s note, she invites readers to “remind yourself this is a work of fiction” before proceeding to footnote the text with the vicious hindsight of a historian. Like the silver bars at its heart — like empires and academic institutions both — Babel derives its power from sustaining a contradiction, from trying to hold in your head both love and hatred for the charming thing that sustains itself by devouring you.
[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.