BABEL, OR THE NECESSITY OF VIOLENCE : AN ARCANE HISTORY OF THE OXFORD TRANSLATORS’ REVOLUTION by R.F. Kuang

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. 

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel. 

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

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down? 

Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.


Title : Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
Author : R.F. Kuang
Format : eARC
Page Count : 560
Genre : historical fiction / fantasy
Publisher : HarperVoyager
Release Date : August 23, 2022

Reviewer : Hollis
Rating : unrated


Hollis’ unrated review

You know, more and more it’s books like this that make me dislike the rating system more than I already did. It’s all relative anyway, right?

Let me start off with the easiest thing I want to say about this book. The thing that’s been at pretty much the forefront of my mind the entire time I read it : I respect the hell out of this book. Yes, it’s clearly a chonky guy, so you can make the leap that this was a lot of work; not just for research and plotting but because of the academic setting and focus, too. Add to it the intense study of colonialism, racism, and the overbearing feeling that resistance to the system is futile? This book is doing a lot.

It’s also uncomfortable. And I think it’s supposed to be? The main characters we follow are each coming to Oxford, to Babel, with the desire for belonging, for refuge, to become more (better) than those around them believe them capable of. As a group, this random selection of four, who become necessary to each other not just to the survival of their early days in this new place, but become necessary for each others’ happiness, their successes, their joy.. they rub each other raw, fight, hurt each other, and it’s what makes the whole of their dynamic so real. Because even though they face adversity on all sides — for their race, their gender — they are still human and imperfect and their various marginalizations don’t always mean they easily understand one another.

And one of those characters, I think, is meant to be a reflection for readers — that even someone with their own battles, their own hardships, can never understand what it’s like to be other in white society. That even with her best intentions, unthinkingly, she does harm. She’s a reflection of our own blind spots, the times we are complicit, and ignorant — or at least she was for me. And yeah, that’s uncomfortable as hell to read. But I appreciated it.

Incase you can’t tell, there’s a lot of pain in this story. Beyond the dynamics, as mentioned, the topic of colonialism is vivid and stark. The casual cruelties, made to be factual by those who believe themselves the betters of others, the violence enacted on non-white bodies both physically and emotionally, it’s all just a lot. Much like the catalyst that sends these characters towards the bitter end, there is a slowbuild of hurts that shifts into rage. Because there’s only so much that a person, a people, can take.

Having said all that, if you expect this to be a fast-moving action fantasy, you will quickly be disappointed. I’ve only liked one of the two prior dark academia’s I’ve read but in some ways I would argue that those plots move a little differently than this one. Even at the end, during what I guess you would call the climax, it’s slow. But it’s fitting. These are scholars and much like the rest of the book things move at a certain pace. As for the magic, it’s almost not like magic at all. It’s a tool, a resource; and as a result the silver feels like something real. Something to hoard, to master, to go to war over. Interchangeable with almost anything, really.

So, beyond my respect, beyond my discomfort, what else is left and where does that leave us? I will say that I was fascinated by some of the spiralling language discussions, the etymology, the shifting and morphing of language. The whole discussion about translation, really, was just spectacular; and also a little heartbreaking. And how that tied into the end.. well. Shockingly I didn’t cry while reading this, though one or two moments did make it a little hard to swallow, and I’m as baffled as you as to why this didn’t rip me to shreds. But maybe it’s also why I can’t come to grips with a rating?

Overall, while I don’t know if this is going to be a story anyone likes, I do think it’ll be one people revere. And maybe that’s where I’ve ended up. Time will tell if I’m right or wrong but, either way, I would definitely recommend this, if you’re interested, but you can’t say you weren’t warned about what to expect.

And in the meantime, I might try and read (finally) the author’s other series, which I have put off for far too long. Similarly, I’ve heard enough to know what to expect about that. I should be prepared. I hope.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

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