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Audio ARC Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

Publication Date: August 23, 2022


From award-winning author R.F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell 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.

Babel is the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…

Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Oh. My Gods. Five Stars do not do this book justice. It was stunning and gorgeous and horrifying and devastating and so, so believable. The way R.F. Kuang grounds every aspect of her worldbuilding in real-life history (documented in copious footnotes) makes the progression of the story logical and feel true. It also makes the horrors of colonialism creep up on you until it’s overwhelming.

I adore the magic system, based on translation between languages, and the shades of meaning that are lost in the process. It is these lost shades of meaning that power the magic when inscribed on silver bars.

The academic setting feels incredibly realistic and nostalgic (in that weird way that brings back memories both good and bad).

The way everything is tied together and carefully plotted, the slow revelation of the horrors of the web of colonialism that traps them all, the slow and inevitable way the characters grow and grow apart — it’s all masterful.

Did I mention devastating? Because I cried more than I have at most books I’ve read this year. I got so wrapped up in the characters and their struggles that it felt so incredibly real

The audiobook was performed beautifully, with a different narrator reading the footnotes and pronouncing the things being translated from other languages, which made it easy to separate them from the main text. I couldn’t put it down and if it hadn’t been for the holidays would have flown through it in just a few days.

11/10 highly recommend.

*Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing an early copy for review.