Babel by R.F. Kuang

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date:
Length: 544 pages
Fantasy | Historical Fiction | Dark Academia

CW: racism

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 of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports 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? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?



I fell in love with Kuang’s writing after reading The Poppy War trilogy and was eager to see what she would do next. When Babel was announced I was very excited, the novel sounded like it was going to be utterly unique, fantastical, and darkly political – all of which it delivered, and more!

I’m fascinated by translation and often read many translated novels, marvelling at how lucky I am that more and more works are being translated into English and shared around the world. So, to read Kuang’s take on how dangerous and exploitative translation could be in the wrong hands, in this instance, the British Empire, was fascinating and made me consider the act of translation in a whole new way. In addition to Kuang fully expressing the power of words, the novel also explores the origins and patterns of language which enthralled me just as much as life at Babel and the political drama the students find themselves caught up in for merely being ‘Babblers’.

The novel follows Robin Swift as he is taken from his homeland, Canton in China, by Professor Lovell and brought back to England to become his ward and learn how to further develop his innate skill for language and translation. I loved that we got to spend a lot of time with Robin and got to see him develop and try to find his place in London before he went to Oxford and met his fellow cohorts. We got to really build a bond with him and began to see, and understand, his inner conflict of being grateful to Lovell for this opportunity and education with the deep resentment for taking him from China and trying to erase his culture whilst using his native tongue for personal gain.

I loved the group of students Kuang created, all with their own conflicts and ways of dealing with being the ‘Other’ in Victorian England. Ramy, Victoire, and Letty were all brilliant in portraying the different aspects of language and colonialism, as well as the similarities between them all and, in some cases, their languages too. However, the characters were so much more than just representatives of their countries and cultures. Each character had a unique and defining personality that really left their mark on the novel. Together they worked wonderfully, even when they weren’t getting along, as this gave them more depth and reality about them.

I thought that the pacing of the novel was really well done, it was quick which allowed Kuang to cover many different parts of this world but it never felt rushed. Even the frequent use of footnotes didn’t detract from this, in fact, I really liked the use of footnotes; not only were they used to further explain some academic theories and texts, but they also provided extra context and information for what is going on around this world. So, be sure not to skip over these! There are many footnotes that I loved and the entirety of Chapter Thirty gave me chills. Another reason why I loved the footnotes was because I could really feel all the love and passion for these characters, this world, and for language as a whole which was truly wonderful to read and get to experience.

The way Kuang explored and portrayed colonialism, the British Empire, and language was simply stunning. Tying them altogether with the magic system of silver bars and translation added an extra layer to this intricate and complex society. Everything felt so real and well researched without ever feeling like a textbook, however, it was difficult to remember sometimes that this is speculative fiction rather than non-fiction because of the level of detail within it. Especially as many of the aspects covered within the novel were, and still are, very real problems in Britain and in the upper echelons of academia. All of which was handled in articulate and compelling prose.

Overall, I adored this read; it was everything I hoped it would be and more. I really loved the way the novel progressed, became increasingly political and conflicting even for the reader. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, began to morph into a difficult to negotiate grey area which Kuang deftly guides us through. Simply put, I loved this book and I already want to pick it up again and re-read it. I can easily say that Babel is my favourite of Kuang’s works to date.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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One thought on “Babel by R.F. Kuang

  1. I didn’t read The Poppy War, the premise didn’t appeal to me, but Babel certainly does, so I’m looking forward to finally giving Kuang’s writing a go! Good to know you enjoyed this even more than her previous work.


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