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Babel: An Arcane History

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fantasy (2022)
From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a historical fantasy epic that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British Empire

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

544 pages, Hardcover

First published August 23, 2022

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About the author

R.F. Kuang

16 books37.5k followers
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Poppy War trilogy and Babel: An Arcane History, among others. She 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.

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Profile Image for Petrik.
687 reviews45.9k followers
October 22, 2022
ARC was provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.

Babel was absolutely impressive, ambitious, and intelligently crafted. As unbelievable as it sounds, R.F. Kuang has triumphed over The Poppy War Trilogy—which I loved so much—with this one book.

“Language was always the companion of empire, and as such, together they begin, grow, and flourish. And later, together, they fall.”

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of Oxford Translators’ Revolution is Kuang’s newest novel. And unlike The Poppy War Trilogy, which I consider a grimdark fantasy series, Babel is a standalone dark academia novel. Also, because this is the longest book title I’ve ever witnessed, to make this review more digestible, I’m going to call the book simply Babel. Babel was—and still is, until August—my most anticipated release of the year. The cover art by Nico Delort looks spectacular, and I think many of you know that I am a fan of The Poppy War Trilogy. I am proud to say that I was one of the first reviewers for Kuang’s debut, The Poppy War, and I mentioned in my review of The Poppy War that Kuang will be one of the queens of modern fantasy. The Dragon Republic and The Burning God proved that notion. And with Babel, Kuang proved, once again, that she is indeed one of the best fantasy authors to appear within the past five years.

“‘But that’s the beauty of learning a new language. It should feel like an enormous undertaking. It ought to intimidate you. It makes you appreciate the complexity of the ones you know already.’”

The story in Babel is told almost exclusively from the perspective of Robin Swift. In 1828, Robin Swift lost his last surviving family due to cholera, and he was then brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. Professor Lovell brought Robin to train him in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese—even though Chinese is his first language—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, feels like a fairytale for Robin. It is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge means power. But for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, this means inevitably betraying his motherland. Robin has to decide whether he should continue to pursue knowledge and stay in Babel, or will he choose to side with the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working, which in essence, defies Babel.

"Languages are easier to forget than you imagine… Once you stop living in the world of Chinese, you stop thinking in Chinese… Words and phrases you think are carved into your bones can disappear in no time.’

The passage above speaks the truth. For those of you who don't know, Indonesia is my first language, Chinese (Mandarin) is my second, and English is my third language. Due to my lack of usage of the Chinese language, it honestly felt like English has transformed into my second language. As you can probably guess from the title and premise of Babel, colonialism, racism, languages, translations, identities, necessities of violence, and finding a place to belong are some of the heaviest themes of Babel. Regardless of whether you love The Poppy War Trilogy or Babel more, I am filled with confidence in saying that Kuang has outdone herself with this novel.

"Translation, from time immemorial, has been the facilitator of peace. Translation makes possible communication, which in turn makes possible the kind of diplomacy, trade, and cooperation between foreign peoples that brings wealth and prosperity to all."

There is a LOT to unpack in this standalone novel. Each of the themes I mentioned earlier was discussed with ruthless exploration. And I believe that any reader reading Babel could actually use the novel to write their own dissertation on one—or more—of the chosen themes. It felt crystal clear that Kuang has done a myriad of research, and she put them all on the pages of Babel. As a reader who speaks multiple languages, I've been reading, writing, thinking, or speaking in two or three languages every day. It won't come as a surprise that I have an interest in linguistics, etymology, and translation. And Babel has them all. Done in a meticulous and addictive fashion, taking place in an alternative historical fantasy setting, Babel never cease to raise thought-provoking questions and discuss important issues with its readers.

"Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?"

What if the city of dreaming spires is, in reality, a tower leading them to an inevitable nightmare through the illusion of grandeur and greatness? Babel is not as grim as The Poppy War Trilogy. It also has a comparatively more likable main character, which I'll get into soon. And these elements made the events and development in Babel more relatable. Look, I could talk about the plot all day long if I want to. But it is quite frankly impossible to discuss in more detail what made the themes executed in Babel so cleverly done without going into spoiler territory. The book isn't out yet for more than two months, and I prefer leaving the best of the plot in Babel to future readers to find out for themselves. Instead, I will now proceed to elaborate upon the characters of Babel and their characterizations.

"In the years to come, Robin would return so many times to this night. He was forever astonished by its mysterious alchemy, by how easily two badly socialized, restrictively raised strangers had transformed into kindred spirits in the span of minutes."

One of the most magnificent things about Babel is its characterizations, especially for Robin Swift. In one book, less than 700 pages long, Kuang managed to meticulously introduce and develop Robin Swift. His character development and story arc felt immense. Seriously, by the end of the novel, try to look back to the beginning of the novel, and you will see how far Robin Swift has changed. Plus, his character development never felt forced. His grief, rage, dilemma, struggles, kindness, and relatively brief moments of happiness felt so genuine. And I, several times throughout the novel, truly empathized with him. The numbers of challenges, jealousy, avarice, manipulation, and domination he has to defeat were just staggering.

"Only it builds up, doesn’t it? It doesn’t just disappear. And one day you start prodding at what you’ve suppressed. And it’s a mass of black rot, and it’s endless, horrifying, and you can’t look away."

Fortunately, Robin was not alone in facing the cruelties pushed upon him. Accompanying him were three supporting characters: Ramy, Letty, and Victoire. This group of friends, these four characters, are individuals with distinct and different personalities, and yet circumstances allowed them to eagerly trust one another without any interrogations. Will they live happily ever after? Well, that's for you to find out. But do know this is a novel by R.F. Kuang, and it is not a spoiler to say Kuang is going to put her characters through physically and mentally crushing pain. As the characters wait for dawn to visit them after a night of explosive discord and conflicts, I waited with bated breath with them. I was so invested in the characters, especially Robin and Victoire, and I consider it a testament to how well-written this book was that, among many other factors, ALL characters in this standalone novel felt so distinctive and compelling.

“Babel, his friends, and Oxford– they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now.”

There is also a feeling of satisfaction in reading Kuang's novels from her debut in publication order. Kuang is an author that keeps getting better and better with each new book, and Babel is the author at the top of her game. The narrative has the potential to strike a various range of emotions, and it is delivered mercilessly. One out of many examples, and I'm going to be vague about this, there was a virtuous character who has their kindness tested too far, and we readers get to witness how deadly the malice that kindness can conjure from this. I felt distraught and conflicted by this, in a good way. But at the same time, I also felt sad, and to a level, rewarded by the turn of events. The prose continuously flows well, and the author successfully nailed the character's development. This doesn't mean I fully agree with the character's actions and motivation, but I understood them. The devastations wrought to counter colonialism portrayed were bloody and vicious, and I found the narrative hard to put down. Babel asks its readers whether there is indeed morality and necessity in violence, or is it all an unnecessary and endless deadly cycle with no way out.

“Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”

Lastly, I need to mention that I have never been to Oxford or United Kingdom. In fact, I have never been outside of Asia. It remains one of my goals to visit the UK and other countries outside Asia. This is to say that Babel did not only immerse me in its memorable story, but it made me want to visit London even more. It's such a vividly portrayed novel with incredible world-building and layered histories. Yes, Babel takes place in our world, but adding the magic of silver-making that required memories and the proficiency in languages and translations to the narrative provided a totally brilliant result in enriching the depth and complexities of the world. I seem to now have a newfound extra appreciation for translators, too. Take a look at this passage:

"I think translation can be much harder than original composition in many ways. The poet is free to say whatever he likes, you see– he can choose from any number of linguistic tricks in the language he’s composing in. Word choice, word order, sound– they all matter, and without any one of them the whole thing falls apart. That’s why Shelley writes that translating poetry is about as wise as casting a violet into a crucible.† So the translator needs to be translator, literary critic, and poet all at once– he must read the original well enough to understand all the machinery at play, to convey its meaning with as much accuracy as possible, then rearrange the translated meaning into an aesthetically pleasing structure in the target language that, by his judgment, matches the original. The poet runs untrammelled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles."

Isn't that so accurate and profound? I actually highlighted more passages in Babel compared to the entire The Poppy War Trilogy. Babel is one of the finest standalone novels I've read. It is a victory for literature, and its quality is what every other dark academia novel should strive to be. Paying homage to the importance of languages, translations, identity, and ethnicities, Babel is one of the most important works of the year. August 2022 will be a big month for the fantasy genre. Not only Babel is the third novel of the year so far that I rated with a full 5 out of 5 stars rating, but it will also be released in August 2022, just a week after The First Binding by R.R. Virdi, which was the second novel I rated 5 out 5 stars rating this year. With The Poppy War Trilogy and Babel as her bibliography so far, I feel assured already in declaring R.F. Kuang as one of my favorite authors of all time. A marvelous one-off fantasy standalone is frequently difficult to find. Pre-order Babel. You won't regret it.

"That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands."

Where do Babel stand in my best books of the year list? To that, I’ll say:

"Mande mwen yon ti kou ankò ma di ou,"

You can order this book from: Blackwells (Free International shipping)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can find this and the rest of my reviews at Novel Notions | I also have a Booktube channel

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Profile Image for idiomatic.
500 reviews16 followers
August 20, 2022
let's lead with the good: this is very polished and eminently readable, and it is no small feat to make a book that's at least 30% lectures about etymology into digestible commercial fiction. it ticks along like a well-oiled engine, it is a thick book where i would plow through pages by the hundred at a time, and the research that holds it up is visibly thorough, particularly where it intersects with rf kuang's own areas of study. the lectures about etymology are vibrantly, engagingly delivered, as if by the brightest youngest professor in your school; in later sections when she has to describe the conditions of warfare and siege are polished and confident as well, as this is a research-based comfort zone for the author and has been so since the poppy war series.

rf kuang has 2 masters degrees, oxford and cambridge, and is currently doing a phd at yale. it is necessary that i lead with this; she has made it necessary and with this book in particular she wants me to talk about it. the research that scaffolds her books is her own academic work, which is something that has tremendously impressed her readership in the past. indeed, it's very clear that she digs deep into her research and based on the places in this book that are *just* research i am certain that her academic work is engaging, rigorous, and vibrant. however, i am currently reading her alleged work of fantasy literature, and while i could certainly believe she is a brilliant academic, that is not precisely the same skillset. all of my issues with the book come down to the same source: i do not believe that kuang has pushed herself to learn beyond the scope of her own research, or to ballast her skillset as a novelist outside of it.

this would have been perfectly functional historical fiction but if you consider it a fantasy it is a failure - while its factual reproduction of imperial british history is, fine, it has essentially neglected to build a new world for itself in any meaningful way. if the copy seems unclear about how this speculative alternative history where imperial britain runs on magic is materially changed by the fact of that magic, the answer is: it is not. this is not being glib or rude. british-empire-plus-magic is unchanged from what you know of history; the history of the industrial revolution is meticulously recreated on-page, inserting 'silver' before 'industrial', but having researched what actually happened, the author seems extraordinarily timid about changing the shape of that world. the lack of inventiveness with how - not just The Empire but the people that make it up would react to having real magic at their disposal!! - is not just lazy but distracting. the excess of exact plausibility came around to breaking my suspension of disbelief from the other side. there's a footnote where she mentions one of william blake's poems ("dark satanic mills") and if you do that it begs the question - do you think william blake would have written the same library of poetry word for word in a world where there is, again, real magic? look at blake's paintings, look me in the eye, and tell me that again. there is no joy and no curiosity about how she builds a world allegedly divergent from our own and no creativity about the ripple effects of magic and its potential uses beyond kuang's own (again, itself very enchanting) passion for translated words. in the end, the function of the magic is exclusively to provide convenient on-off switch so she can deliver a fantasy of 'what if we could simply turn off the engines of empire?' and while that's a soothing vision in late capitalism it feels not just shallow but unsatisfying, because if history as we know it is utterly unchanged by the addition of 'silver' then it's hard to believe that its removal will have any enduring effects. like oh no, samuel crompton invented the spinning mule with magic in your world? i guess when magic is gone he'll have to (checks notes) invent it, unmagically, the exact same way?

but kuang manages expectations of creativity from the front: her author's note is an extended, rather defensive description of the tower she has invented on oxford campus, and an assertion of her right to do this, argued against an imaginary guy who is i guess furious that she dared to invent anything for her fiction novel. this guy never leaves her behind, and she comes off like she does not either think that she should be inventing inside the records of history or that she is allowed to - which is a bizarre stance to take for an author whose book is entirely about how these halls are not in fact hallowed and should be reclaimed. but then again, she also leads by telling us that she kept the oyster tower from her own oxford ball because she found it such an impressive and dramatic tableau of Luxury despite the fact that oysters were peasant food in victorian england. does she invent a magical way to preserve the oysters, or make any small note about this distinction in the scene? no, they're just there because they were there for her in real life and she cannot or will not imagine an equivalently excessive feast in victorian london that would shock her characters speechless in the same way. not 'i have to convey awe-inspiring wasteful luxury' - 'they have to have oysters because i have oysters'.

that same creative ethic (or lack thereof) - 'it must be exactly as i know it, otherwise the readers Will Not Understand' - is also a glaring issue with its political language. the cast of characters is an ethnically diverse cohort in imperial british oxford, and their descriptions and the way they talk about their identity in imperial britain is pulled directly from 2020s twitter. this is both tonally distracting (when a student of imperial british oxford refers to the 'narco-military state'), extremely patronizing (when a student of imperial british oxford says derisively of a character we're supposed to dislike 'she's not helping the feminist cause'), and occasionally sets foot into a bear trap (when a nonwhite student of imperial british oxford calls another nonwhite student of victorian oxford a 'brown man', from a position of racial solidarity - they absolutely did not have that as an umbrella solidarity term at the time but they SURE DID have it in victorian race science! if i was writing a book about a mixed cohort in imperial british oxford i feel like the first thing i would do is a basic google of how people were talking about race at the time to see what i wanted to use and what i wanted to meticulously discard - and to say nothing of kuang's live jstor account, she has the same google!).

this is to me an absolutely insane blind spot for a book literally about language's nuance and inadequacies! how are you going to 'translate' all of your ideological terms into 2022ese uncritically, and be like 'obviously this is the only ethical language', IN THIS BOOK, ON THIS SUBJECT? more than just patronizing the modern reader*, the ultra-contemporary political language felt demeaning of the historical record: there are plentiful accounts of what it was like to experience racism, imperialism, oppression under the colonial british rule, told in (i say this deliberately) the recorders' own voices. the inhabitants of those experiences had the language to express themselves, and to pursue liberation. the authorial unwillingness to write in any kind of historical voice implies that antiracist/decolonial thinking is a modern invention that cannot exist without our modern vocabulary, and i can't think of any stance more dismissive or insulting to the history that in fact delivered us to the present. our words too will expire and prove inadequate, in time.

*in case you, dear reader, do not get the point, there are regular footnotes** when a character experiences the racism of imperial british policy or literature that say 'jsyk, this is racist'. the instances of racism in imperial british policy or literature are - not subtle. i feel like if you are worried about depiction being mistaken for endorsement in your novel about multiethnic citizens of the imperial british empire, you need to table the novel.
**but of course, the footnotes have to exist to put the book into conversation*** with jonathan strange and mr norrell!
***the book is not in conversation with jonathan strange and mr norrell. jonathan strange and mr norrell is exuberantly concerned with answering the question 'what if england had magic' and weaving the tapestry of the alternate history that question presents, and as mentioned that question could not be further beneath rf kuang's interest. this is a thematic and tonal response to harry potter, and it's a decent one at that - from 'what if there was a reason all spells were delivered in garbled latin' to 'well sure britain runs on wizards but obviously that doesn't change anything you know about it' to the fanart kuang commissioned. but i understand why they couldn't put that in the copy.
Profile Image for Sofia.
231 reviews6,961 followers
October 9, 2022
By the end of Babel, I was shaking. Maybe out of grief, maybe out of awe; I felt as if I had watched something monumental flourish and collapse. And, for a minute, the world seemed so still, like the last few pages were a clip from a silent film. I’m writing this review immediately after finishing the book. I think, at some point in the near future, the enormity of what I have just read will come slamming into me. But for now, I will type away and try, in vain, to express the shockwave that I know is about to hit the literary world.

Babel has the weight of a modern literary classic, although it is a unique blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction. Kuang’s writing can be very technical, and often reads like a textbook. Despite the dense, lecture-like paragraphs about etymology and the history of language, Babel is incredibly immersive. It’s so easy to get swept up in this story. Over the 24 hours that I was reading this, I would tell myself that I was just sitting down to read a few pages, only to accidentally read one hundred.

I enjoy reading nonfiction and I have a passion for languages, so when I closed the cover of the book feeling like I had just completed a university course, I was filled with this sort of humming glee. I can see myself reading Babel again and again, poring over every sentence with the same fascination that I experienced this first time through.

Rebecca Roanhorse calls Babel Kuang’s love-hate letter to academia, which could not be more accurate. Nowhere else have I read academia described with so much biting, loving, unflinching detail.

Babel honors the magic of translation and linguistics. While many say that words are just sequences of sounds given meaning, language is undeniably a keystone of history and culture. Translation is a highly underappreciated art. Every time words are converted between languages, they lose some of their association, some of their meaning and gravity. What is most important in a translation? The author’s style and voice? The emotional message? The exact words themselves?

Robin, the main character, feels so real. For most of the book, he grapples with impossible decisions. He was taken to Babel without choice, but he feels at home in the tower, which feeds his hunger for knowledge. He knows that the research he works on supports British imperialism, but he relishes the power he wields as a translator and silver-worker. As he witnesses Britain pump opium into China, his homeland, he struggles to choose between the utopian life of comfort and discovery he has grown to treasure and everything he has wilfully ignored for most of his life: the fact that he will never truly be accepted in Oxford for who he really is, that to the empire, people like him are either curiosities to be examined or subhumans to be exploited. Staying at Babel feels like a betrayal, but the enormity of the other option frightens him: join the secretive Hermes Society to take a stand against Britain’s abuse.

This is where many of the most weighty questions are raised. As the title suggests, Babel is in part a breakdown of the necessity of violence. It’s easy to say that nothing is solved by brute force that could not have been solved by diplomacy, but will an oppressor ever be able to sacrifice their pride and greed? At what point does a line need to be crossed, a transition from peaceful activism to the threat or action of violent upheaval?

Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty are all meticulously drawn characters. While their bond is fiery and passionate, they are afraid to test the limits of their inherent differences. Letty, raised in an upper-class white family, has trouble understanding how Robin, Ramy, and Victoire will never truly be free at Babel. How they were taken from their countries and shackled to Babel, forced to help construct the same empire that is destroying their homes and enslaving their people.

Babel is passionate, scathing, incendiary, fervent. It has all the inevitability and gravity of a tidal wave, a massive force crashing into me, sweeping me away. Here, I find that language has failed me once again, because I cannot write a sentence or a paragraph or a whole review that will quite capture how I felt when I finished Babel. I will leave it for you to discover, because if you pick up just one book this year, make it this one.

5 stars
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
September 29, 2022
I tried my very hardest to like this. I thought The Poppy War was excellent when I read it a few years ago, and Babel seemed like a combination of subjects I find fascinating and spent my own uni days immersed in-- history, language/linguistics, colonial studies --but in hindsight, I wonder if I might have found it better if I knew nothing about those subjects.

Babel is set in Britain in the first half of the 1800s. A young Chinese boy is brought from Canton to London by a language professor and taught Latin, Greek and Chinese in preparation for his future studies at Babel-- Oxford University's Institute of Translation. In this alternate world enchanted silver is used to power the empire, and it is the careful application of language that enables silver's power to be harnessed. In short, it is about how colonial powers used language to control and profit from others.

I almost gave up after the first 200 pages, but my partner had already read and liked the book so he convinced me to continue.

My initial impression (true of the whole book, it turned out) was that it said an awful lot, repeated an awful lot, and still managed to be very basic in its examination of its themes and characters. The language/linguistics analysis is an overview of any beginner linguistics course. Anyone familiar with a rudimentary history of how languages have been shaped and changed over time will not find anything new here. Perhaps it will be more interesting to those who are unfamiliar with these subjects.

To me, it felt very much like reading a textbook. Dry regurgitation of a linguistics or postcolonial lecture. The author uses Oxford as a setting and the later Industrial Revolution as a historical template, adding very little that was new to any of it. The protagonist, Robin, is a very passive unmemorable character, surrounded by characters who are either equally benign and forgettable, often serving as mouthpieces for what feel like jarringly modern views, or else one-dimensional EVIL imperialist racists. Where is the unique fantasy flair? Why are all the characters lacking in nuance?

Each one of the footnotes spread throughout seems to exist to hammer the points over our head.

Somehow, I finished it. Though I feel like I should have stuck with my initial gut feeling and not have bothered because my experience remained the same way throughout: forced, didactic conversations from one-dimensional characters; a basic history/language lesson; nothing to make this book stand out beyond its arresting cover.

I adored the magic boarding school of The Poppy War just as much as the darker later chapters. I feel like school environments with young adults 16-25 can be extremely thrilling— hormones, jealousies, rivalries, ambitions, competition, clashes between differing personalities, but it is not so when the characters exist only to talk about academia and make the author's point for her. Here, they don't feel believable; they don't feel human. This book felt similar to Ninth House or a more basic version of The Secret History. Which is to say, unbearably dull.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
782 reviews12.4k followers
October 22, 2022
Welcome to the party. Let me introduce you: Subtlety, meet Ms. Kuang; Ms. Kuang, meet Nuance. I see you’ve already met Didacticism, Repetitiveness and Overexplaining, so no intros needed there.
This book, besides managing to both annoy me and bore me to tears also managed to almost ruin footnotes for me. (That’s a crime, given that I, as a devoted Terry Pratchett fan, have not previously met a footnote I didn’t love — until Babel came along).

It’s a book that greatly suffers under the sheer weight of its dry heavy-handed didacticism as the author seems earnestly terrified of the readers somehow failing to grasp the very basic message she’s so relentlessly trying to convey by incessantly sledgehammering it into our brains.
“It was so obvious now that he was not, and could never be, a person in his father’s eyes. No, personhood demanded the blood purity of the European man, the racial status that would make him Professor Lovell’s equal. Little Dick and Philippa were persons. Robin Swift was an asset, and assets should be undyingly grateful that they were treated well at all.”

Had I never known that colonialism is not a good thing, maybe I would have found something interesting here. But because I haven’t actually grown up under a rock, the relentless boring unsubtleness was a bit too much to endure over 500 pages.

Seriously, no thanks. I think I’m becoming a bit allergic to books that seem to doubt readers’ ability to come to their own conclusions and instead opt for the sledgehammer approach, badgering the reader over the head with anvil-like statements lest that reader does not come to the obvious predetermined conclusions, and then spoonfeeding more of the same in the neverending pontificating footnotes.
“You have such a great fear of freedom, brother. It’s shackling you. You’ve identified so hard with the colonizer, you think any threat to them is a threat to you. When are you going to realize you can’t be one of them?”

Trust your reader and stop badgering me. I *get* your point, and repeating it 456654346764 times doesn’t make me get it more.

Instead, give me an interesting story populated by characters who are more than one-note forgettable message-vehicles. Give me a touch of nuance rather than starkly simplistic divisions of everything. Give me anything besides lackluster plot as an excuse for a dull lecture full of endless exposition, interrupted with equally soporific discourses on translation which quickly become repetitive. Give me a semblance of worldbuilding instead of throwing an offhand bit of magic in a world that’s unchanged from our own despite weaponized translation. Give me a single conversation that doesn’t seem forced. Give me paragraphs that do not sound like a textbook. Give me something that doesn’t evoke the memories of those earnestly idealistic books of young people’s fortitude and sacrifice - earnest manifestos - that permeated Soviet libraries (yes, I read those when I was a kid; I read *everything* I could get my hands on).
“Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?”

I finished it because it seems that I’m terminally unable to put even a completely unengaging book aside (yes, I know it’s a problem; I need to see someone about that).

Painfully dull and repetitive, but still not as bad as my 1-star reads, even if it butchers the magic of a well-crafted footnote. So very annoyed 2 stars it is.


Also posted on my blog.
Profile Image for R.F. Kuang.
Author 16 books37.5k followers
December 26, 2021
This is the most ambitious thing I've ever written. In a lot of ways, the Poppy War trilogy was my training wheels; I finished off the standard linear epic fantasy project, and now I get to do all the formal, stylistic, thematic experimentation that I want. It's a love letter and breakup letter to Oxford. It gnaws at questions that have bothered me since I started graduate school–chiefly the brokenness of academia, and the sacrifices that true change might require. It's all the gnarly, bizarre, fascinating facets to linguistics, translation, and colonialism I've been studying over the past few years. I can't wait to share it all with you in 2022!!!
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.5k followers
October 10, 2022
if books were people, this story would be my perfect match.

because this is the equivalent to tall, dark, and handsome.
its also intellectual, mysterious, and passionate.

what can i say - i have a type.
and its dark academia.
(the fantasy element in this is also a pleasant bonus).

5 stars
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews156k followers
Want to read
October 28, 2022
Obsessed with how you can immediately tell the author is an academic because the title sounds like something straight out of JSTOR lmao
Profile Image for Hannah Azerang.
130 reviews98.2k followers
October 20, 2022
a history lesson and a therapy session all in one

r.f. kuang is brilliant and i will never be the same
Profile Image for John Mauro.
Author 5 books513 followers
September 17, 2023
My complete review of Babel is published at Before We Go Blog.

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”

I have mixed feelings about Babel, R.F. Kuang’s Locus Award-winning novel, which I will try to articulate below.

Writing (4.5/5): R.F. Kuang's writing has improved significantly since The Poppy War trilogy. Her somewhat sloppy writing was the weakest part of that trilogy, especially in The Dragon Republic. Kuang has taken a huge leap forward with Babel, which has the feel of a modern classic. I especially love how naturally she interweaves etymological discourses throughout the main narrative thread. My only minor complaint is her overuse of footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes are used appropriately, e.g., to provide historical or linguistic context, but too often she uses footnotes as a crutch to explain her characters' inner thoughts, which should be apparent from the main text.

Setting (5/5): R.F. Kuang has captured the "dark academia" setting better than any of the other prominent novelists in this genre. She has done a particularly masterful job of capturing the academic aspects of life at Oxford. Babel is, in my opinion, a much better representation of a dark academic setting than Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which unfortunately has provided the archetype of the dark academia genre despite its highly unrealistic depiction of life in academia.

Characters (3.5/5): Robin Swift and Professor Lovell are both masterfully drawn, multifaceted characters. Robin is a sympathetic character despite his increasing propensity for making bad decisions. Professor Lovell serves as an excellent villain, with just the right level of mystery. Robin's circle of friends are somewhat less well developed but are still fairly compelling. The other characters are rather one-dimensional. I was especially annoyed by Griffin.

Plot and Pacing (3/5): This started off very strong. However, the plot suffers from uneven pacing, especially in the middle third of the book. The main problem is that the plot becomes increasingly unbelievable toward the end of the book. I couldn't quite fathom some of the horrible decisions that the characters were making.

Magic System (1/5): This is the weakest part of Babel. Silver is magical because...it just is. In my opinion, this book would have been much better as historical fiction rather than fantasy. I found myself thrown out of the story every time magical silver made an appearance. I liked the novel best when it stayed in the realm of actual history.

Worldbuilding (1/5): Babel considers a British Empire that utilizes magical silver to strengthen its imperial ambitions. But this magic-enhanced British Empire is...exactly the same as the real, historical British Empire. What, exactly, was the point here? Again, Babel would have been much better as historical fiction.

Themes (1.5/5): There is an annoying lack of subtlety here...every English character is over-the-top racist, while the non-English characters somehow embody more enlightened 21st century views on the subject despite being in the 19th century. R.F. Kuang handled the complex subject of racism with a lot more nuance in the The Poppy War trilogy.

Overall Rating (3/5): Babel starts off strong and is beautifully written. However, the incorporation of magic and a lack of nuance took away from the experience. It's a good book, but it falls short of the greatness that it could have achieved.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.8k followers
January 5, 2023
so many people are going to have so many individual heart shattering reactions to their identity because of this book. it made me feel pride, it made me feel shame, it made me hopeful, it made me grieve, it truly kind of made me feel everything. but right now i am just feeling in awe of rf kuang and everything they are doing in literature, showing all the different words people use for violence.

best footnotes. best dark academia. best book of 2022.

trigger warnings + content warnings: loss of a loved one, murder, death, grief, disease/plague mentions, colonization, war, invasion, battle, talk of slavery, abuse, physical abuse from guardian, racism, xenophobia, colorism, use of slurs, blood, talk of suicide, talk of child labor, talk of inhumane work conditions, police brutality, torture, gun violence, brief sexual assault (unwanted touching with intent on more) mention of feet binding, misogyny, talk of drugs, stress + anxiety depictions, vomiting, talk of extreme stress put on students

(beautiful art by cosmikbread)

Blog | Instagram | Youtube | Ko-fi | Spotify | Twitch

buddy read with may and maëlys <3
Profile Image for emma.
1,866 reviews54.3k followers
June 15, 2023
i read this 100% because it seems badass.

and guess what! it was! i get everything i want in this life and i always will.

this had translation! literature! school! the evils of colonialism! what more could you want!

besides a swift end to my liberal and uncharacteristic use of exclamation points, as if i am writing an email uncomfortably! unfortunately that won't be happening, because i am too enthusiastic!

i don't know why this book has been getting bizarre and specific negative reviews, because i thought it was pretty damn good!

not perfect — very YA feeling at points, and very slow at others — but effective and cool!

bottom line: !!!
Profile Image for Jonathan.
793 reviews4,151 followers
December 18, 2022
Booktok will hate Babel as it requires both the capacity for empathy for other people and the ability to read and understand stories that are not solely a bunch of tropes pretending to be plot.

Babel is beautifully written, well researched and delivers a powerful story full of emotion - if you're willing to listen.

‘That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.’
Profile Image for Baba Yaga Reads.
108 reviews1,693 followers
October 3, 2022
The Italian word for disappointment is delusione, from the Latin de-ludus, literally “to make fun of”. Its closest cognate in the English language is delusion, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality”.

R. F. Kuang has me stuck in a never-ending cycle of delusion and disappointment. I keep convincing myself that I’m going to love her next book, and she makes fun of me by delivering something that doesn’t remotely match my expectations. Then she publishes a new book, and the cycle repeats.

Babel, in particular, seemed like the kind of novel I’ve been wanting to read for years. As a former translator, I was excited to learn more about its language-based magic system. As a reader, I’ve grown increasingly tired with the romanticization of academia and the classism inherent in the dark academia genre. And as someone whose family was deeply affected by European imperialism, I am keenly interested in fiction that discusses this topic.

The premise, then, was stellar; the execution, not so much.

My first issue was worldbuilding. To create an organic fantasy world, an author should either pick their setting based on how they want magic to work, or pick their magic system based on what makes sense for the setting. Instead, Kuang picked her setting (Victorian England) and her magic system (words translated on silver bars) based on the themes she wanted to tackle, with no apparent consideration for the actual compatibility of the two in real life. The result is a world that looks and works exactly like the real British Empire, even though its magic has nothing to do with the technology the British used.

This leads to a number of absurd conclusions that are ultimately detrimental to the book’s message. Historically, the reason Britain invented and developed the technology that led to the Industrial Revolution was that this technology required huge investments, made possible by the exploitation of the colonies. But translating words and engraving them on silver bars doesn’t require any sort of advanced technology.

Besides the cost of silver, which we’re told is abundant in the colonies, there are no reasons why any advanced civilization couldn’t develop their own institute of translation. The idea that translation alone is responsible for the technological superiority of the British Empire is ludicrous. Frankly, the only reason someone would come up with that idea is that they idolize translation to a point where they think it could actually be the single most important form of knowledge in human history.
Which, considering that Kuang is herself a translator, doesn’t seem like a far-fetched idea.

This single-minded obsession with the novel’s themes is also reflected in its characters. All of them are written not as multi-faceted humans, but as spokespeople for a certain perspective the author wants to portray. Robin is a British-Chinese man torn between his two identities; Rami is an anti-colonial activist who hates the Empire; Lettie is a privileged white woman; every British man is a cruel, evil imperialist devoid of humanity.

These are not people. They’re allegories.
And listen, I can appreciate a good allegory. But these characters aren’t even deep or original stand-ins for the concepts they’re meant to represent. All their political discussions seem to have been taken straight out of Twitter. If you’re on social media and even tangentially interested in postcolonial discourse, I guarantee you’ve heard it all before. Throughout the book I kept wondering, what is it that Kuang is trying to say with these didactic, on-the-nose explanations? That the British Empire was racist? That colonialism is bad? That workers were exploited during the Industrial Revolution? But you don’t need to convince your 21st century readers of this. And those who may still need convincing (bigots) will certainly not be swayed by a book that depicts all English people as evil, chauvinistic imperialists.

It doesn’t help that Babel has absolutely no trust in its audience’s ability to pick up subtext or understand its themes on their own. Instead, the author constantly interjects the narration with footnotes that are meant to clarify what is already obvious to anyone with minimal reading comprehension skills. These notes tell us that the racist things racist characters say are, in fact, racist; that Britain’s wealth comes from it being an exploitative colonial empire; that astrology doesn’t actually work; and other things that no human being with a functioning brain would possibly need explaining. These notes are also extradiegetic, meaning that they’re external to the narration: it’s not a fictional character writing them, but the author herself, who is directly addressing her modern readers. This felt very condescending and took me out of the story, causing me to wonder who Kuang thinks she’s writing for, if she envisions her ideal reader as someone who needs to have everything over-explained to them.

Until it dawned on me that so much of this book wasn’t written for me, or any other human reader. It was written for Twitter—specifically, an imaginary Twitter user who only exists in Kuang’s head, and whose entire existence revolves around levelling petty, bad faith criticism at her writing. This user gets really riled up about her making up a new building to house the Oxford Institute of Translation, in her fantasy novel about a made up Oxford Institute of Translation. They complain about her obviously racist villains not being condemned enough by the narrative. They get upset about a revolutionary character killing an innocent girl, in a book that is literally titled The Necessity of Violence.

Problem is, you can’t write a book for someone like that. First of all, because this person is not real: they’re a mental image conjured by the author’s own anxieties and insecurities. Secondly, because no good art has even come out of a need to pre-emptively defend oneself from baseless accusations. And thirdly, because despite Kuang’s best efforts, it’s impossible to make criticism-proof art.

I understand that it can be difficult to shut down the bad faith reader inside your head. Still, authors need to stop writing to convince an imaginary person that they’re morally righteous, and start treating their readers like intelligent adults who can figure things out on their own.

Because there is a good story buried in here. If you take away the repetitive, superfluous explanations that bog down the narrative; if you add some complexity and nuance to the characters’ personality; if you give the audience a chance to think for themselves instead of lecturing them; you get an interesting novel that attempts to deconstruct the dark academia genre through the lens of language and translation. And this potential is particularly evident in the last 10% of the book, which ended up adding a star to my final rating. The last few chapters are truly powerful and emotionally resonant, imbued with a raw sincerity the rest of the novel lacks. I just wish it didn’t take me so long to get there.
Profile Image for may ➹.
494 reviews2,064 followers
December 28, 2022
this was the nerdiest book I’ve ever read (and I loved it)


There are so many praises to sing about this book. RF Kuang’s prose remains as gripping as ever, even as she slowly builds tension and layers on nerdy academic teachings. I have always been interested in the dark academia genre but have yet to read many of the staples—but I feel completely satisfied with Babel. What else do I need when I have a book about the horrors of academia within the colonial empire, tackling the balance of life or death not just with the acts of individuals but those of an entire system?

Specifically, Babel shines for me in its investigation of language, a discipline by which I’ve always been fascinated. Especially after taking a linguistics course this semester (and recognizing so many things in the book that we covered in class!), I nerded out even more over the linguistic nuggets Kuang sprinkled throughout the pages. Kuang’s passion for linguistics and translation is so evident with each lecture and conversation, and it made me connect even more to the book. The magic system is genius: Languages will always come into contact with one another, but basing the magic system on how languages retain their diversity despite that contact sends such a powerful message. However, I would say that Babel is mainly historical fiction, using the magic system more as a vessel for the ideas Kuang wants to discuss rather than something that can stand independently. (In fact, the magic feels a bit out of place, only relevant for its connections to these themes.)

Mainly, though, Babel is about colonialism and revolution. Robin questions how he should live, whether he should focus on his own survival while at the heart of the colonial empire or resist. Both come at a personal cost: the weight of denial or the risk of his life. Kuang takes the reader along Robin’s realistic journey of realizing the necessity of resistance and violence to achieve decolonization. This book is most heartbreaking not in the parts related to death, but in the parts about hoping and hoping to one day belong and be valued in a place that does not see him as human—and the realization that it never will. Like with the Poppy War trilogy (and in my opinion, even more than TPW), I do think Kuang gets caught up with painting large thematic statements and subsequently leaves behind the characters. But I enjoy Kuang’s writing specifically for her themes, so I can’t exactly complain.

The biggest flaw of Babel for me is that the messages are not subtle. This is shaping up to be a trend in Kuang’s works, and while I don’t necessarily hate it, I don’t quite love it either. While I enjoyed some of the footnotes that gave us extra tidbits of historical information, others grated on me with their haughty “this is racist by the way, in case you didn’t know” remarks about things that were… obviously racist. I love all of the themes that Kuang so expertly explores, but I am smart enough to figure out for myself how x represents a symbol of oppression or x reveals an imperialist mindset—and I don’t need it repeated throughout the book either. Kuang is brilliant, certainly, and I think her commentary on and critique of whiteness and colonialism is, too. I just wish she would trust the reader a little more.

But… I guess I can’t really say that, because despite how too on-the-nose I thought Kuang’s messages to be, white people still manage to miss the memo! I sincerely hope that all the Lettys out there will read Babel and emerge a changed person, but I doubt it. So while it is not for me (someone who can read properly), the constant hammering on the head is clearly necessary for other people, and I can appreciate it for that function.

If, like me, you find yourself slightly peeved when authors lack trust in their readers, then Babel might grate on you at times. But it was not enough to make me dislike this book, because there truly are so many things to take away from Babel. This is real dark academia: true sinister atrocities brought to light and a bold questioning of what it means to make a change. After The Poppy War trilogy, I suspected that Kuang would forever remain a must-read, game-changing author. Babel cements that belief. She has the skill to make me forgive shortcomings that would normally ruin a book for me.


:: representation :: Chinese mlm(?) MC, Indian Muslim mlm(?) MC, Black Haitian MC

:: content warnings :: murder, violence, gore, torture, racism, colorism, misogyny, sexual harassment, loss of loved ones, depictions of blood, depictions of grief, discussion of: war, slavery

// buddy read with melanie <3
Profile Image for Elle.
587 reviews1,399 followers
February 20, 2023
Now a Goodreads Choice finalist in Fantasy!!

I have put off writing this review for months, for no reason other than I was afraid of failing to fully and accurately explain R.F. Kuang’s newest work to people interested in reading it. So I hope you’ll forgive me for letting myself off the hook in a way—I’m not going to be covering the entirety of Babel in this single Goodreads review. As more people read their advance copies, I’m sure there’ll be a surplus of opinions to take into consideration before beginning this book, but I’m not going to attempt to take Rebecca’s place in telling this story.

me being very chill about this book

The first thing that I think potential readers should keep in mind is that this isn’t the kind of book you’d typically build a fandom around. It’s not a fantasy of dragons and swords, fairies and secret doors, but a tale of the monsters who built the world we all currently inhabit. It is a fantasy so deeply rooted in history and imperialism that it almost feels like it could have actually happened this way. So as much as we’ve all enjoyed the character art and mockups of beautiful special editions being passed around online, I just want to make sure everyone’s expectations are where they should be. If you’re here for ships and tropes that will go viral on TikTok and Instagram, you may end up disappointed.

If it wasn’t obvious from full title, Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, you’re going to get a healthy helping of both the ‘Dark’ and ‘Academia’ portions of the genre. I’d also like to emphasize that Kuang goes well beyond an academic aesthetic setting, fully entrenching every aspect of the story deep within the bowels of academia. We get to see students rigorously study their specialized fields, but also the unsavory sides of this culture typically hidden from public view. The magic system is no exception to this rule, relying fundamentally on language, and specifically the act of translation. Lovers of literature, historians and linguists, both professionals and enthusiasts, will adore this aspect. It’s not a flashy kind of magic and deceptively simple in concept, which is why it lends so easily into an alternate history novel. The way it’s incorporated feels plausible, and the who and why this power is being sought, all too probable.


Through our core four characters—Robin, Victoire, Ramiz, and Letitia—we bear witness to the day-to-day lives of institutional outsiders as they try to navigate a system inherently hostile to their presence but desperately in need of their skills and labor. There’s some obvious similarities between the author and the main character, Robin, but all four of them carry pieces of that misfit quality that will ring true for so many. What she ends up doing with each character separately and as a group is very clever, probing their blind spots and privileges in ways that will challenge the readers’ own complicities. Their interactions are at times encouraging, sometimes devastating, but always ring true. Fair warning, though, there will be moments that feel so honest that they’re likely to sting.

I think the underlying emotion guiding the text is a steadily building rage. The number of quiet cruelties that the marginalized characters must absorb then set aside would be enough to drive most from pursuing this kind of educational tract, which is by design. In fact, if you’re reading Babel and you’re not angry, you’re doing it wrong. On the domestic political side, there’s a thoughtful examination of the labor movement of that era, interlaced with not-so-subtle remarks on the exploitive nature of capitalism. You can draw a number of parallels between the UK of this time period and the US currently, a comparison probably not lost on a Chinese American writer studying in England.

What’s clear is that Rebecca’s time at Cambridge, Oxford, and later Yale greatly informed both her writing and perspective on the state of the world, particularly how it came to be this way. The result is a scathing indictment of British and European colonialism, including the rippling effects across continents; and it’s entirely deserved. Magic in this world is just another resource to be extracted from the poor by the powerful, and when those wells run dry they do what their real life counterparts did—embark to find and exploit other lands and people. But no amount of blood spent will ever be enough to satisfy their incessant thirst for more.


If you’ve read Kuang’s previous Poppy War trilogy, you know what tone to expect. You cannot build a sustainable legacy on the broken backs of your fellow man. There’s no great twist of fate to save the day, just the relentless resistance of those who reach that breaking point. This is not a feel-good story, despite being an exceptional one. It’s a classic R.F. Kuang slow-march of inevitability—and absolutely perfect. Prepare yourself for brilliance. Prepare yourself for heartbreak. Prepare yourself for the triumph of Babel.

**For more book talk & reviews, follow me on Instagram at @elle_mentbooks!
Profile Image for MoonstoneOwl.
262 reviews29 followers
January 9, 2023
DNF at 60% but I skipped around until the end. Dark academia is hot right now, and Babel was supposed to be THE dark academia novel of the year. However, I absolutely despised Babel, and here's why...


What a boring, mean-spirited book. It had little charm and came from a place of hate. And can this author write about anything other than one person starting a revolutionary war? Even her dark academia novel ends up going in the same direction as her Poppy War trilogy. Sis hasn't gotten over her Hunger Games phase, it seems.

This book is SO dull. The only creative aspect was how the author managed to find different ways to say the same thing on every page: white people suck and they're evil. By the billionth time, a white person came along to crap on the main characters or say something stupid, I was like, 'Okay, we get it: whitey = evil.'

And the footnotes were annoying and useless. They didn't add anything to the story, and you could predict exactly what they were going to say before you even read them because 90% of them were just there to tear down every aspect of British history and culture. They'd pop in every now and then to tell you that some random thing was 'problematic.' No shit, Sherlock. Everything from 200 years ago (Sherlock Holmes included) is problematic. That's just history for you.

The characters:

Quick note: I remember seeing this fan art when Kuang announced on Twitter that she was writing a dark academia novel a couple of years back. It got me so excited to read this book, and I'm really disappointed that I ended up not liking it.

These are some of the most boring, one-dimensional characters I've read about in a while.

Robin - The author legit forgot to give Robin a personality. His defining trait was basically just noticing and reacting to racism.

Victoire - She was a perfect human with a flawless personality, which made her annoying. If she ever got mad at someone, the story would bend over backward to make her point of view justified.

Ramy - Ramy's defining trait was that he hates British people and their culture with every fiber of his being, but gets really upset when someone questions why he chose to study in Britain. The author was trying to do something with the hypocrisy of this, but because she was so hell-bent on portraying whites as evil and everyone else as good she missed the mark.

And then there's Letty, the blonde-haired white girl...

Letty breathes

Everyone in her friend group: 'Will this fcking btch ever shut up?'


Robin kills someone

The gang: Let's keep it a secret.

Letty: Hey... is this really the right thing to do?

The gang: I knew this btch was going to betray us at some point.

Letty was the author's favorite punching bag and outlet for all her hatred of white people. It was weird because Letty was created to be bullied and ostracized by the others. Was I supposed to enjoy this dynamic? There were scenes where the other three couldn't wait for Letty to leave the room so they could talk freely among themselves. It took all of their efforts to tolerate Letty being in their presence.

At one point Robin says that he feels sorry for Letty and describes her as the innocent one in the group. I thought the author was giving her favorite chew toy a break. But actually, this whole section was about how Letty's innocence came from her ignorance. She could never understand the others or truly experience things alongside them, and her attempts at caring and trying to connect with them were portrayed as annoying. When she grew impatient with their bad moods, it was supposed to be like a 'gotcha' moment, a confirmation that she's not one of them. Maybe this is a dig at white allies and the suggestion is that they'll always benefit from white culture. Even if they think they're being helpful, they're still part of the problem and will always be. See what I mean about this book being mean-spirited? lol

The cherry on top of this crap sundae was Letty's inevitable character arc. It turns out that Letty had a huge crush on Ramy, but Ramy could barely tolerate her presence. Because she couldn't have him, her entitled, sociopathic white rage finally came out for everyone to see. She betrayed her friend group and got Ramy killed (I don't know the full details because I was skipping around by this point). She destroyed him because she couldn't get her way with him. Maybe Kuang's message here is that the white woman's true self will come out when she's denied something because white culture teaches her that she can have anything she wants and minorities must fall in line with her will. Jesus... what a point of view lol. Then, to drive the point home, Victoire reflects back on her friendship with Letty and says that Letty was always a horrible, abusive person and now she finally sees it. Well I didn't see it. In the beginning anyway, I mean, Letty was acting like a fairly normal person. Does that mean the author wanted us to read negatively into everything she did just because... she's white?

All I wanted was for Kuang to present a more balanced view of humanity through the inclusion of Letty in the friend group. But nope lol! She thoroughly destroys any chance of that by making sure we know that all along Letty was a bad person, which means she was never really friends with them.

Another aspect of Letty that frustrated me was that the only sympathetic quality she was given was her minority status as a woman in college at that time. It was the only thing allowed to be good about her. So basically in the world of the book, if a character had a minority status they were allowed at least one point for sympathy. But unfortunately for Letty, being the whitest of whites gave her about minus 99 points automatically.

It was almost impressive how Kuang made sure that not a single white character is remotely likable. Even the cook, who was initially nice to Robin when he arrived in Britain, is later revealed to be a terrible person because she saw Robin getting beaten and didn't do anything about it. So yeah, kudos to the author for her dogged determination to make sure no white gets away seeming likeable.

The Message:

The book's message about the harmful effects of British colonization is important and worth discussing. It's undeniable that the countries under British rule suffered greatly. But while I can understand Kuang's strong feelings on the matter, I personally believe that British colonization is a complex issue that cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy of good or bad.

I come from a culture that has been affected by British colonialism, too. My mother is from a small South Pacific island that was colonized by the British in the 1800s. The traditional customs of my mother's culture were replaced with western ones, and the actions of the British at the time caused trauma that still affects my mother's culture today. However, the reality is that if things had not happened as they did, I and many others would not be here now. We also might not have had the opportunities we have right now to create a positive future for ourselves and others.

While it's important to acknowledge historical injustices, dwelling on them and harboring resentment towards white people today is not right. The thing I don't like about Babel is that there are very few gray areas (from what I read), it's like 545 pages of encouraging the reader to see white people as one-dimensional caricatures, and embracing feelings of resentment and victimization and then feeling justified in these thoughts.

I think this book might encourage POCs to adopt a victim mentality. When I was younger I bought into the idea that as a POC, I had been wronged in some way because of the past. But these beliefs aren't even true and they also caused a lot of unnecessary insecurity and deppression. And I realized that there is no end to the blame game. I deeply regret wasting my energy on all of that. So I hate seeing my fellow POCs waste theirs by buying into victimhood and resentment when they could be doing things to actually bring themselves up. I understand that people are at different stages of healing, and I'm not saying that people should just shut up and be happy. I'm also not saying that my people's relationship with British colonization is equal to other nations. All I know is that this book tries to make it okay to judge others based on their minority status, rather than on just being who they are. This is a terrible way to view others. Further, I believe the book promotes a victim mentality, which, from my experience, only harms mental health in the long run.

Anyway so yeah, if you were to study at Oxford in the 1800s as a non-white international student, you would have been treated poorly by the locals. But even the book admits that at that time, Robin's home country of Canton was rife with misogyny. Every nation was committing vile and foolish acts 200 years ago. For example, my people used to literally eat their enemies. The last time I visited my mother's island, I purchased a history book about people being kidnapped and eaten by rival clans. This was not only for revenge, but it was also believed that the person consuming the victim would gain some of their powers. When the British arrived, they condemned cannibalism (and some of the missionaries were even speared and eaten as a result). The British may have butt in, but their decision to act as custodians over the islands set off a chain of events that led my mother's people into the modern world.

Last thoughts:

Each to their own, but I find myself side-eying the white people who are so eager to give this book five stars. Perhaps they're far less irritable than me or they enjoy masochism. Or maybe after reading 545 pages of white-people bashing, they've been worn down?

Additionally, many might be feeling like they need to be cautious when discussing the book because they know they'll be attacked for expressing their true opinions on it. It doesn't need to be said, you and I just know that calling out a minority's resentment of white people is not the done thing and opens one up to being attacked.

We've just accepted that white people are now punching bags for minorities in order to make up for the past. And whites have accepted this role and are expected to endure it because they supposedly "come from a place of privilege". When a POC spews hatred over whites, they're punching up, and therefore whites shouldn't be offended.

Firstly, that is not my idea of equality.

Secondly, I understand that white people mean well when they say they come from a place of privilege, etc, but it's cringey and minorities don't need to be coddled like that. If anything, the fact that we are bending over backwards to avoid calling out a minority author for this type of bigotry does not imply that whites are the privileged ones, now does it? Kuang is free to write whatever she wants, but her mean-spirited approach in this book is ultimately destructive. At least for me, it completely destroys any interest I had in this book or any of her future works.

Summing up:

Considering how popular this book is, it will likely encourage more people to buy into the blind hatred that leads to a lifetime of anger, suffering, and victimhood. That's sad because I would rather see minorities breaking the cycle of our intergenerational trauma by living well and thriving. You can't achieve that by being vengeful and expecting others to tolerate you, sorry.

This book was engaged in a mean-spiritedness that felt fundamentally gross to me. I call out gross shit when I see it, and if that makes me an uncultured swine, so be it

*Edited on 1/09/23 to make my points a bit clearer*
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
431 reviews4,225 followers
September 9, 2023
Earlier this year, I came up with my dream author panel: RF Kuang, Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman, and Philip Pullman. When thinking through this, I wanted to know if anyone has ever had a fantasy author panel before, and I discovered that, indeed, Comic-Con has had fantasy author panels in the past.

Because I have learned that the worst people can say is no, I contacted Comic-Con, asking if I could host this fantasy author panel. They said sure but would give me no budget, so it was a non-starter.

However, my dreams never die. Eventually, I will either invite all of the authors to visit when I am properly book famous or I will team up with someone to do a Kickstarter.

All that to say, I really think that RF Kuang is the future of fantasy. The Poppy War is an incredible book that I simply loved, and I have mad respect for her.

Now about Babel…….

The first 5% and the last 40% were very strong. However, from about the 5% mark to the 60% mark need some revision.

Recently, I have been reading Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman. It is a book about storytelling (which I highly, HIGHLY recommend). I’m going to paraphrase the gist of one of his thoughts, but Pullman is simply a master of writing. Authors or would-be authors need to practice the art of storytelling. Think of storytelling as a marketplace of sorts. Readers come into the marketplace with storytellers on every corner. Readers who are intrigued will linger, staying a few more minutes, but if they get bored, they will just pop on over to another corner to discover another storyteller.

Alright so what does this have to do with Babel or am I just delusional? Well I’ll let you be the judge of that.

What Didn’t Work

The storytelling needed improvement.

First, way too much time was covered in this book. Even in Harry Potter, they only cover one year in each book. This book covers way too many years. It would have been better if RK Kuang just focused on the first year at Oxford or broke up Babel into several different books.

Second, this book is too far in the weeds about language and etymology, the origin and history of English words. Certain sections of Babel were so technical that they reminded me of my tax classes (but I found those much more interesting because literally the rules save you real money or keep you out of prison).

Third, the story arc wasn’t clear until much, much later in the book. For a good portion of the time, I was like, “Um, where is this heading?”

Fourth, the ending is incredibly weak. Back to Pullman for a minute. In The Golden Compass, he has one of the best endings that I have ever read. I have never wanted to read the next book so badly. However, the ending in Babel is forgettable and lackluster.

Fifth, the sections on the characters need to be rewritten. The sections on Ramy, Victoire, and Letty were not as strong as they should have been. If I was editor of this book, I would have focused on one key moment in that character’s life and really focused on “showing, not telling”, really going through one moment which would move my readers’ very soul. Telling these characters’ life stories in one chapter is just too much to take in.

Sixth, I didn’t find Robin’s first day at Oxford very believable. Why would anyone risk everything without a safety net for a cause and a person that they only met 5 seconds ago?

Seventh, there is one death that had too much foreshadowing. Dune is one of my favorite books, and one of the reasons is that a character was killed off that I never saw coming. In Babel, I would have been really surprised when this character was killed off, but I wasn’t surprised when we were warned right before it happened.

What Worked

First, the beginning is really strong and interesting.

Second, RF Kuang has a very good grasp of readability. For example, she doesn’t have massive paragraphs and massive sentences. She has also modernized the language for 1828. There are no thees or thous.

Third, the fantasy is easy to understand and isn’t overwhelming.

Fourth, Babel addresses some important topics. Especially in today’s political climate, we have a choice: we can either work to change the system or we can refuse to engage. It really reminded me of all of the heat that Sheryl Sandberg received for writing Lean In, a book with tips about how women can succeed in the workforce. The criticism is that Sandberg offers how to succeed in the current atmosphere instead of advocating for changing the system. However, is it easier to change yourself or the entire system? That will be a question for your book club.


Overall, this book did turn around at the end, but it took too long to get there. However, I’m not giving up on RF Kuang just yet. If anything, it just proves that I definitely need to put together this fantasy author panel.

*Thanks, NetGalley, for a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and unbiased opinion.

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Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,302 reviews43.9k followers
May 12, 2023
My grey cells on fire! They are out of order because of information overload. I never imagined there are so much to discover about the importance of linguistics! Okay I take it back. I knew it but the book absolutely made me remind of it!

I haven’t read a book as intelligent, intellectual, unconventional, moving, unique as Babel for a long time.

This is an extraordinary experience to learn and understand more about the power of language, and it also represents exemplary criticism of colonialism, strikingly bold approach to class differences, racism, nationalism. It feels like a stunning nonfiction perfectly blended in fantasy world and dark academia.

The character development is perfect. Each of them are portrayed impeccably. Robin Swift warms your heart with his kind heart, intelligence, testing his morality from the beginning: should he help the thieves just he’s done before instinctively at the risk of losing his opportunities he’s been provided.

Ramiz Mirza; quick witted, sharp, sarcastic, Indian, being targeted by privileged obnoxious students of Oxford because of his unique appearance.

Victorie, observer, extra intelligent, overqualified, tough, badass worrier fighting tooth and nail to survive.

And Letty, most privileged and least likable character but slowly she gets under your skin and her straightforwardness, sharp comments deeply affect you. Eventually you learn to resonate with her.

Four main characters are outsiders, chosen for improving their abilities to serve at Translation Institute of Oxford, in other name “Tower of Babel” , the special place to protect entire silver talismans and very valuable manuscripts coming from all over the world to be translated in English.

Robin, Ramy, Letty and Victorie are specifically chosen because of their unique abilities with languages and their minority issues. Robin and Ramy can not be Oxford men, they can only be men in Oxford. The girls forced to live far away from the main campus, being treated unequally.

Robin’s immigration story, his move to London, his relationship with loveless Mr. Lovell and the mystery about the boy who just replaced is one of the interesting storylines mashed up with other three characters’ story.

Overall: the entire complex execution is truly mind blowing! If you like linguistics, politics, true history, this is perfect match for you!

Special thanks to NetGalley and Avon and Harper Voyager for sharing this amazing digital reviewer copy with me in exchange my honest thoughts.
Profile Image for ..
66 reviews
Want to read
May 4, 2021
what is joe biden’s plan to stop r.f. kuang from making these characters suffer
Profile Image for Kartik.
267 reviews49 followers
August 4, 2022
Babel reminded me of the classics and literature I had to study in my school days. Yes, there was a lot of noteworthy ideas and discussions to be had but by god was it a challenge to get through.

First off, the person who wrote the marketing tagline, "for fans of The Poppy War" needs to be fired from their job. This is nothing like The Poppy War. The latter was an epic military fantasy war story while the former is an literary fiction-esque urban fantasy. Going into Babel expecting something reminiscent of The Poppy War will just ruin the entire book for you. That being said, even if I had gone in with correct expectations, I doubt my opinions would have changed all that much.

Let's start with my first problem: NOTHING HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK. Well, ok, that's not completely true, there is a lot of plot progression and activity in the last 100 or so pages of the book. But the effort needed to get to that point was really taxing. Yes the writing is very pretty. And yes the magic system is incredibly inventive. And yes the atmosphere is enticing but without a strong cohesive narrative tying it all together there's just nothing for me to latch on to. I kept reading and waiting for the plot to go somewhere but ultimately it never did. But a lack of a plot doesn't inherently mean a book is bad right? A lot of people don't mind reading a "no plot, just vibes" book if the characters are compelling. So, are they compelling? Well...

The characters (and the world as a whole) just lacked any complexity or depth. I actually laughed when I saw a review that said Babel has "a brilliant presentation of the found family trope". That's completely wrong. These characters are not a found family. A found family indicates a level of trust, rapport, and devotion. Here, the characters keep things from each other, they never listen to one another, and every time we do see them talking to each other it always devolves into an argument.

But by far the biggest issue here was Letty. At no point did she feel like a real person. It was SO EVIDENT that she was just a mouthpiece for the author to get her beliefs across. She's a woman which means she has some struggles in academia, but she's white which means she avoids the struggles that non white women face (so you can tell that the author has heard of the word intersectionality). She uses her experiences with sexism to guilt trip others into accepting her demands but also isn't aware of the privilege she has. The narrative CONSTANTLY tells us that she's a racist and an ignoramus but it never actually shows her doing any of these things, which makes it extremely jarring when others accuse her of being bigoted, since there was no build up to it.

This is just the gist of the description and not an actual quote, but in one moment she would be described as "someone who makes a few off hand comments here and there but ultimately a kind soul" and then a hundred pages later Victoire and Ramy would be screaming at her about how she was unaware of their struggles with racism.

She was also just a weird character in general, at one point she discovers the others have been keeping a HUGE secret from her and I expected there to be some big blowout and argument... But instead she just doesn't say anything and immediately forgives them. If I learned that my close friends we're keeping such a secret from me, I would've said goodbye and broken all contact with them. On a pure narrative level, I can kinda understand Letty's actions and beliefs but I ultimately can't fully appreciate them because it was so evident what the author was trying to do and I couldn't read about her without feeling like R. F. Kuang was breathing down my neck.

In fact this is a big issue with all the characters in general, it felt like they were written around a single defining characteristic rather than being given space for something more. Here are all the characters summed up: Robin is the one who struggles with his biracial identity, Ramy is the one who hates the British, Victoire is the one who suffers so we can see the cruelty of colonialism, Letty is the one who's a privileged white woman and Lovell is the one who's a racist AND a hypocrite. They're never given any dimension outside of this one attribute and it just starts to wear you down.

With regard to the world, there was, once again, a complete lack of any kind of nuance or complexity. Without (trying to) spoil much, there is a war about to happen between two countries and all the people in the aggressor country are portrayed as evil, heartless, and cruel, while all the people in the victim country are shown as innocent, virtuous, and pure. I'm not saying that all countries are heartless or all countries are good, what I'm saying is that such a simple dichotomy does not make for a rewarding reading experience. To elaborate:

While I was reading Babel, I was comparing it a lot to Flamefall (which is the second book in The Aurelian Cycle Trilogy) by Rosaria Munda since both deal with themes of inequality, revolution, and war. And honestly if you want an example of these themes handled well go read Flamefall instead (but obviously read Fireborne first lol). I'm just gonna say it here Babel was just a less interesting and less compelling version of Flamefall.

Like in Babel, there's also a colonial empire antagonist in Flamefall too, and it would have been so easy for the author to depict everyone under that regime as cruel and evil. But instead we actually see the day to day lives of ordinary people under that regime, how many people have different thoughts and beliefs and ideals and stakes. In addition we are also shown the lives of people under the "innocent" country and how the government and its people constantly make mistakes and errors and poor choices. This made for such a richer reading experience because we are shown the full stakes and complex actions of everyone involved, whereas in Babel, there exists no such complexity. And yes, I know there were a few moments (in the end where everything was crammed in) where the characters began to question their actions, but that ultimately lead to nowhere.

The conclusive message of Babel basically seems to be "white people bad, everything sucks, and then you die" (which is honestly most of literary fiction in general lmao) and that's fine I guess. Despite all of my above criticisms I will agree that it's a very smart book, and I know that every reader who picks it up will get something different out of it. I'm happy for them but alas, t'was not for me. I'm more than ready to read whatever epic fantasy Kuang comes out with next, but I think I'm gonna skip on her lit fic novels from now on.

Oh, and before I cast them out of my memory forever, fuck the footnotes.
Profile Image for Ashleigh (a frolic through fiction).
461 reviews7,363 followers
June 21, 2022
A full dark academia themed video and review is featured on my booktube channel here!

I promise you all - this book is astounding. Words cannot do it justice (the irony, ha).

This is everything I long for in dark academia. It presents the obsessive, fanatical cycle of studying, the weird thrill that comes from achieving the overworked student aesthetic. It presents a feeling of camaraderie amongst likeminded souls, and the conviction that all else is immaterial. But it also presents many brutal truths - the violence behind academia. The cost of knowledge as a resource. The web of accepted deceptions society is built upon.

Every contradiction of obsession, hatred, comfort, violence, and so much more is captured in this book. It hurt. I’m wounded. And I loved it 🥹

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review! This in no way affects my opinion of the book itself.
Profile Image for Rebecca Roanhorse.
Author 55 books8,051 followers
April 10, 2022
If you had told me that a historical fantasy set in the early 1800s at an Oxford institute for translation would make for an intriguing fantasy book, I would have said, Sorry, but sounds kinda dull.

Allow me to stand corrected.

RF Kuang has written a masterpiece. Through a meticulously researched and a wholly impressive deep dive into linguistics and the politics of language and translation, Kuang weaves a story that is part love-hate letter to academia, part scathing indictment of the colonial enterprise, and all fiery revolution.

The story is populated by complex and contradictory characters who face soul-shattering choices and stakes that rock the world. Now, I will admit there are a few places midway that drag a bit for those of us who are not scholars of linguistics, but they are laying groundwork for an explosive and thrilling conclusion. Not only is the story deftly plotted, but the prose flows, and complex ideas are made easily digestible and intriguing. There are a handful of footnotes used to great effect (and I am not usually a fan of footnotes in fiction but they work perfectly here) and even some smartly placed interstitial chapters.

Overall, Kuang pulls no punches in the sharp, brilliant, heartbreaking, heart-filling, and all together satisfying story. Five big stars.
Profile Image for Megu.
132 reviews1,448 followers
March 5, 2023
Za drugim razem, i to po polsku, trzepie mocniej. Ta książka powinna być nielegalna, bo ktoś przez nią kiedyś obali jakiś rząd.
Profile Image for Cinzia DuBois.
Author 1 book2,845 followers
October 2, 2022
Right, so… this really wasn’t the book for me. Oh dear, I have a lot of issues, but remember: if you loved this book, that’s valid, but you didn’t, it doesn’t mean you aren’t “intelligent enough”. To be honest, after reading that, I’ve become convinced more than ever that people rate a book highly purely based on the fact it covers important topics to avoid “looking racist” rather than actually rating how a book handles and discusses racism and incredibly important discussions such as capitalism, colonialism and its long-standing, horrific impact.

Had this book been marketed as a YA, I would have been more forgiving. The deep topics covered (linguistics, academia, colonialism, racism, capitalism) are discussed in an overly simplistic, patronising way that talks down to the reader. (Us poor non-Oxbridge types are clearly too uneducated to formulate our own readings of any imagery, and can’t possibly understand complex ideas. Here, let the author ensure you understand it by emphatically overemphasising the obvious in the narrative and adding footnotes to boot, just in case even that’s too difficult for you to understand).

There are several issues of note, primarily the bombardment of themes and topics which all exist at a superficial level, and none are covered well. Let’s break them down:

1. Racial stereotyping and cartoonish presentation of microagressions.

Racism is rarely subtle, especially during this period. There’s no need to question the overt nature of racism, but the way it’s presented is rather cartoonish. As someone who doesn’t experience racism, I can’t really speak on the matter in terms of realisticness, but as a reader, from my perspective, the overt racism and micro aggressions were presented in an almost comical manner which undermined the emotional intensity of the experiences of the character subjected to it. It read like a book introducing children to the subject of racism and how to identify it in very overt way rather than an adult discussing the impacts of racism and how atrocious, insidious microagressions affect academics in elitist institutions and beyond.

On top of this, the one-dimensional, stereotyped characters seemed to undermine the anti-racist sentiments. These interesting figures were reduced to their identities complete with racial stereotypes, making them feel like props being used to express the author’s message rather than existing as characters in their right, whose existence inadvertently raises awareness to important topics of discussion. The characters had no complexity or depth, and the relationships between them weren’t developed or explored: they just were. I felt like they were used as a checkbox for diversity or mouthpieces rather than existing in their own right, and that, again, felt hypocritical considering the plot of the book.

I mean, you can’t criticise racism and then reduce all your characters to caricatures of their racial and social stereotypes. I mean, come on — you made the Irish girl THROW A POTATO AT SOMEONE for crying out loud. Good grief.

2. Hypocritical and overly simplistic discussion on linguistics.

For a book about language and the importance of its impact, there’s a bizarrely hypocritical employment of it. It doesn’t make sense to write a historical novel about language if you then employ politically contemporary language to develop your characters’ identities, and how they self-identify. Why make it a historical novel at all if you disregard the language limitations of the period? Why write about the nuances and inadequacies of language within a historical period if you ignore all the limitations of language during that period and instead have your characters understand race and discussions about race and identity with language that’s only come into existence in the past 50 years?

The ultra-contemporary political language concerning, and understanding of, race, colonialism, imperialism, class, wealth, oppression etc weren’t authentic to that period, and this doesn’t make sense because there were activists and academics writing about these issues during this period and they do so in their own language and lexicon. Why do so much research into this period only to disregard the language of that period, especially when you’re writing a book about language and the magic system revolves around language?!

Additionally, I’m not a linguist or translator, but the discussions on linguistics, etymology, translation, etc seemed incredibly basic to me, which added to the feeling of being perpetually patronised by the author.

3. An undeveloped magic system under a thinly veiled metaphor
The magic system was so original in nature yet failed miserably in execution. I think people really underestimate how difficult magic systems are to create: they think they can just throw in magic and that’s all that’s necessary. Don’t get me wrong, Kuang can write when she actually does it, but rather than write a scene, Kuang chooses to summarise it, and the same goes for her magic system. I really dislike books which tell, not show, and this whole book is written in this way, and the same law applies to its magic system.

The book is straddling two genres- history and fantasy. Its history is fine, nothing outstanding or worthy of praise, but you would expect adding magic to this period would change it in some meaningful way. But it doesn’tI’m not entirely sure how this benefitted from being a fantasy. Everything about this period is the same despite these being magic at their disposal. The magic in this book has the same impact on the society and period as a pink lady apple. Imagine someone writing a historical fiction about the 19th century with a magical element about it - a pink lady apple. This is impossible, pink lady apples weren’t invented until 1973. But this author decides to include it as an essential part of the plot. Yep. As you’d imagine, that wouldn’t have much impact, and the magic in this book has the same degree of impact.

If the world isn’t fundamentally changed by silver, why are we supposed to care? I’m not excited about silver, like I wouldn’t be exited about a pink lady apple being in the book. If it doesn’t transform the world as we know it, how are we supposed to invest in this universe and care about the fate of silver?

I really felt Kuang doubted the ability of their readers to understand literature and read metaphors. They were so heavy-handed with spelling out that the magic system of silver was a metaphor for the industrial revolution I felt like I was reading the Spark notes to a novel rather than a novel itself. It’s ok, Kuang. You can let the reader take the book into their own hands. She seemed to be terrified at the idea of a reader not acknowledging or picking up on every “ingenious” literary technique she employed that she forced us to acknowledge every essence of it. This would be the easiest book for a literature student to analyse, because the author gave us all the answers. She needs to trust the reader’s intelligence, and she needs to let go of the idea that literature can be read in ways she never intended it to be.

4. Preachy mouthpieces that don’t fit the characters or time period
Ok, so we’ve covered the fact that Kuang uses inaccurate political language regarding race and social status for this period of time (and the characters have an awareness of these issues in a language which is unbefitting to the period). But Oh GOD, the Opium debate. This is probably where I got the most irritated. No offence to Gen Z, but there’s a stereotype of your generation for being preachy know-it-all/experts in every possible situation, and this scene really fell into that stereotype (I don’t agree with this stereotype of you, by the way, I’m just using the stereotype as an example so you can picture this scene).

In this scene, Robin, the naive, sheltered little translation student suddenly, out of no where, becomes an expert in the health and social implications of Opium and it’s the most staged, preachy, inauthentic and random scene that it stood out like a sore thumb. I don’t disagree with anything he said, but it felt totally contrived and moralistic (superior know-it-all student knows all about a random subject unrelated to anything he’s discussed in the book so far against very overtly greedy, selfish evil British man - it was cartoonish). By the end of the scene, I expected the other guy to snap his fingers at Robin and scream “YAHS QUEEN”. It felt like I was reading a debate on Twitter where someone was perfectly citing facts they googled quickly to back up their position, posing as an expert despite clearly knowing nothing about the subject until a very superficial understanding of it.

This discussion is so important. In fact, this book covers such important discussions and topics, but they’re presented in such a lazy way that they might as well have been blog posts on the issue rather than plopped into a work of fiction. This kind of event occurred several times throughout the book, but this was the most heavy-handed and extensive and it stuck out to me, haunting me all the way to the point I wrote this darn review.

There was nothing clever about how these important issues were discussed and raised. It was boring and straight forward, as if catering to young adults learning about life issues for the first time rather than adults. People criticising the book saying “it reads like a textbook/academic article) are being FAR too complimentary — the most important elements are written like a blog post.

5. On a personal note, I’m rather fed up of the glorification of Oxbridge universities. They’ve been historically heralded as the pinnacle of academic prestige, despite centuries of nepotism and upper-class biases underlying their admittance process (which is, ironically, highlighted in the book). Academics exist all over the world in a wealth of institutions. Can we stop this overdone trope of the ivory towers, please? I’m bored.
Profile Image for Alix Harrow.
Author 41 books16.5k followers
July 13, 2022
hahahaaaaaaahaaaaaaaaa i thought i was ready for this book! i'd read the poppy war trilogy! i'm familiar with the time period, with academia, with interrogations of empire!

reader, i was not ready. Babel is more ambitious, more brilliant, more upsetting, more satisfying, than i could have imagined. it's a love letter and a declaration of war. it's The Secret History on the scale of empire; it's Jonathan Strange with teeth.

god speed, babblers. <3
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