Babel centers around Robin, a child orphaned in China and brought to England by the mysterious professor Lovell. Robin spends his childhood being trained in both ancient and modern languages so that he can enter Oxford’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, otherwise known as Babel. Once admitted to the University, Robin learns that translation is the key to the silver-working magic performed at Babel, and that the elite are using it to enrich themselves at the expense of other countries, cultures, and peoples. He and his fellow students are mere tools for the Empire. With trepidation and inner conflict, he becomes entangled with the Hermes Society, an underground organization determined to end the work of Babel and the Empire, with violence if necessary.
This is a complex and intricately plotted novel with lots to unpack including themes of colonialism, racism, sexism, and the art and power of translation, combined with lush world building and an imaginative yet subtle magic system. The threads between history and fantasy are twisted tightly together in this novel and are not easy to untangle. It is clear that author R. F. Kuang, a Marshall scholar with multiple advanced degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, has done an enormous amount of both historical and linguistic research, and she shares that wealth within Babel’s pages. Yet she manages to keep the story engaging! Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. Kuang moves the plot forward and develops memorable characters in the midst of everything else going on in this novel.
This is definitely a book for word nerds! Or for anyone who would like to be. It may appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, books set in England, at Oxford specifically, or during the opium wars in China. It may also appeal to anyone who reads translated books or appreciates translation as an art form, or who loves language and word origins. Babel may also appeal to fantasy readers who enjoy dark academia and historical fantasy.