Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

Book Reviews / Wednesday, September 7th, 2022

By: R. F. Kuang
Genre: Epic/Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Two weeks ago, Robin’s mother was still alive…
He had no right to be resentful. Professor Lovell had promised him everything, and owed him nothing. Robin did not yet fully understand the rules of this world he was about to enter, but he understood the necessity of gratitude. Of deference. One did not spite one’s saviours”
R. F. Kuang, Babel

Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Tranlator’s Revolution is a brilliant masterpiece of writing. There are so much ingrained societal elements that Ms. Kuang tackles in this book, which she seamlessly ties into the fantasy aspect. The book takes place in England in the early 1800’s, the height of the British Empire and its colonial power. Babel is the heart of Oxford, and the center of linguistics that are used in silver-working, the magic of language that runs Great Britain. The main protagonists, Robin, Ramy, and Victoire attend Babel because of their linguist aptitudes, but are still non-white foreigners who will never be accepted into British Society. Ms. Kuang holds nothing back as she forces the reader to take a hard look at systemic racism, misogyny, classism, and the ramifications of colonialism. It is both uniquely creative in the system of magic she uses, and how it ties into these brutal social constructs that exist. That is not fantasy, but the truth of what marginalized people faced. As she explores all of this, we take a hard look and see while many things have changed, some have not. The genius of Ms. Kuang’s writing is that I came away from this novel feeling like I had new found understanding of the horrible situations non-white individuals faced during that era. Systemic racism and misogyny are still prevalent, but Ms. Kuang’s writing makes it feel extraordinarily personal, and so many times I felt guilty over how we don’t see what is right in front of us. It was only after I finished Babel, did it all hit me and found myself crying at the power and beauty of her words.

“He had become so good at holding two truths in his head at once. That he was an Englishman and not. That Professor Lovell was his father and not. That the Chinese were stupid, backwards people, and that he was also one of them. That he hated Babel, and wanted to live forever in its embrace. He had danced for years on the razor’s edge of these truths, has remained there as a means of survival, a way to cope, unable to accept either side fully because an unflinching examination of the truth was so frightening that the contradictions threatened to break him.” R.F. Kuang, Babel

Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty, the four main protagonists, are accepted into Babel for their exceptional linguistic skills. Babel, the most prestigious institution in the empire, is known not only for its study of languages, but its silver-working. This is the magic used to run England. Careful pairing of words from languages across the empire are worked into bars of silver, which are then used to make the running of cities more efficient. For example, a bar can be coded with language to make ships sail faster, weaving done quickly, faster carriages, steady bridges, and just about anything else. Bars can be coded with deadly language or healing. Babel is the heart of London and the heart of the empire. There is much in the book that deals with the intricacies of language. I speak one language, but Ms. Kuang’s detailed exploration of language pairs were utterly engrossing.  Without silver bars, it would grind to a halt. The empire needs these proteges for their skills in their own languages to eventually serve the crown in silver-working. Robin, Ramy, and Victoire were taken from their homeland and families at about 10 years old, privately tutored language studies in upper class British homes, and then accepted into Babel. Letty is different, as she is white and belongs to upper class British society. It is why she was not included in the opening paragraph as she is not subjected to the same marginalization as the other three. She and Victoire are certainly the object of misogyny at an institution that accepts very few women, and places restrictions on them that male students do not have.

“I don’t think you two quite understand what it means to be a woman here,” said Victoire. “They’re liberal on paper, certainly. But they think so very little of us…Every weakness we display is a testament to the worst theories about us, which is that we’re fragile, we’re hysterical, and we are too naturally weak-minded to handle the kind of work we’re set to do.” R.F. Kuang, Babel

This amazing magic that runs the city is also the root cause of many societal issues. Industries using silver need less workers, less workers means more people living in poverty. Many of them are dangerous and employ children, who are often injured during their jobs. The languages that make the bars work are pilfered from the British colonies, with the exception of China, as it was not a British colony. We often think of magic in fantasy as something wondrous and saving the world. Here, once again, Ms. Kuang turns the tables on the system. Silver-working is indeed amazing, but who does it benefit? Silver bars can be purchased by the wealthy to do inconsequential magic in a home. The poor cannot afford silver, it puts them out of work, thereby creating a classist society. The silver doesn’t benefit the colonies, as it is not sent overseas. An underlying, but important factor in the story is that Britain is running out of silver. China has an abundance of silver, but has no need to trade with Britain. Britain wants to ship opium, which is forbidden in China, in exchange for silver. The book does take place not long before the Opium Wars, and this of course was not the cause of the wars, but they are clearly heading in that direction. In this case, magic on its surface is incredible, but peel back the layers, and the injustice emerges.

“…London sits at the centre of a vast empire that won’t stop growing. The single most important enabler of this growth is Babel. Babel collects foreign languages and foreign talent the same way it hoards silver and uses them to produce translation magic that benefits England and England only…The newest and most powerful bars in use rely on Chinese, Sanskrit, and Arabic to work, but you’ll count less than a thousand bars in countries where those languages are widely spoken, and then only in the homes of the wealthy and powerful…That’s predatory. That’s fundamentally unjust.” R.F. Kuang, Babel

Ms. Kuang’s writing is beautiful and powerful. She drives home the point of how the wealthy simply don’t care, or others don’t see the injustices that are done. Richard Lovell calls Robin’s mother a “Chink” and “just a woman”, thereby dismissing her death because he believes in the superiority of England. They are not people to him. Robin is an asset, a resource, and Robin should be grateful for what he is given, even though he is a “Chinaman”.  The out of work are simply lazy, and they dismiss the children hurt in silver-worked run industries. This superiority is a fundamental belief for those like Richard Lovell and most of the British upper class. It creates a classist and racist society that allows them to flourish, and others suffer, and Babel is at its core. Letty, while she is their dear friend and they love her, is blind to what they face every day. The slight difference between her and those like Professor Lovell, is her immersion in a society that she becomes blinded too. He is not blinded, he helped create it. For Letty, as a woman, she is grateful to be at Babel. However, she simply doesn’t see how the others are treated because they are people of color and foreigners. Letty believes in English superiority and, like her, Robin, Ramy, and Victoire should be grateful for Babel. They are her friends and her cohorts, but she comes from a world they will never be a part of. For all this, she still loves them and they are her dear friends, and vice versa.

“Then he blinked, because he’d just registered something what this mundane and extraordinary moment meant-that in the space of several weeks, they had become what he never found in Hampstead, what he thought he’d never have again after Canton; a circle of people he loved so fiercely that his chest hurt when he thought about them.
A Family.”
R.F. Kuang, Babel

There is pure eloquence in Ms. Kuang’s writing. The entire story flows so smoothly and beautifully. The undercurrents of ills of society are interspersed with beautiful moments like this with Robin and his friends. It is at times difficult to read when we are hit full force with beliefs of the time period, and the callousness of how they are treated, spoken about, and spoken to. To write it any other way would not do justice to those who suffer, and writing and tackling it with bluntness drives home the point. The insulated life Robin has led causes great internal introspection at what Babel truly is and how he is now torn apart trying to figure out what it means to him. We can feel his struggle, we can feel Ramy’s anger at not being served in certain pubs, and the frustration of the women and how they are not equal to the men. Victoire is a woman of color, and feels the depth of her situation keenly, but hides it from the others for a time. Great writing elicits a response from the reader, and I felt so many emotions reading Babel. Ms. Kuang is simply a remarkable writer. I truly have never read a fantasy like this, and it has stayed with me since I read it. I find myself thinking about Babel, while as I read it, it was an emotional roller coaster. The true emotion it evoked in me didn’t fully emerge until I wrote this review and cried many times. I think it goes without saying that Babel is a fantasy you should read.

“I’m thinking about the Chinese character for dawn,” he said truthfully…It looks like this.” He drew the character in the air…”Up top is the radical for the sun – ri”… “And under that, a line. And I’m just thinking how it’s beautiful because it’s so simple. It’s the most direct use of pictography, see. Because dawn is just the sun coming over the horizon.” R.F. Kuang, Babel

Overall Thoughts

Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is a brilliant fantasy unlike any other I have read. R.F. Kuang has written a fantasy that encompasses both magic and social injustice. It is even more compelling that the magic itself is the root cause of many of these problems. As the main protagonist, Robin Swift, is taken at 10 years old from Canton to England, he is immersed in a new life. His skills in language will admit him to Babel, the prestigious institution at Oxford, and center of the functioning of London. The magic is so unique and creative. Centered around silver-working, bars of silver are carved with pairing words that allow them to function for all kinds of tasks. Robin, and his friends Ramy, Victoire, and Letty, are similarly chosen for Babel for their skills. For Robin, Babel is a utopia. A place where he believes he will attain an equal standing in British society. Eventually the façade of Babel unravels as he sees the injustice caused by only the wealthy and powerful benefitting. The racism, misogyny, classism, and the effects of colonialism begin to emerge. As Robin tries to justify it, he is torn between his love/hate relationship with Babel. Ms. Kuang held nothing back from the reader as she addresses these issues. What these students face becomes deeply personal as we come to know them. It was this personal approach for me, that made me both sad and angry. How far have we come? Do we ignore or just not see injustice right in front of us? It was an emotional roller coaster of a read. The true impact of what I felt didn’t hit me immediately after I finished the book. It was only when I was putting this review together for Babel did I realize the importance of what I had read. And I cried through most of it. Babel is an absolute must read for everyone, not just fans of fantasy. I more than highly recommend it.

Summary (from NetGalley)
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.

Babel is 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 its knowledge 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 sincere thanks to Harper Voyager and NetGalley eBook ARC for Babel
To find out more about R.F Kuang on her website:
Purchase Babel on Amazon
Purchase Babel at The Broken Binding

Rebecca F. Kuang is the award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Poppy War trilogy and Babel: An Arcane History, as well as the forthcoming Yellowface. A Marshall Scholar,sShe has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, where she studies diaspora, contemporary Chinese literature, and Asian American literature.

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