by R.F. Kuang
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. Expected publication date: August 23, 2022.
“Later, when everything went sideways and the world broke in half, Robin would think back to this day, to this hour at this table, and wonder why they had been so quick, so carelessly eager to trust one another. Why had they refused to see the myriad ways they could hurt each other?”
When his family dies in a cholera outbreak in 1820s Canton, a boy whose name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. Here the boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that pursue knowledge and fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve.
R.F. Kuang, a Marshall Scholar, studied at both Cambridge and Oxford during her scholarship. An author’s note at the beginning of the book covers what was drawn from real facts about Oxford and its historical setting, and what has been changed or embellished for fictional purposes. From the setting to the subtitle to the myriad footnotes, Babel bears the stamp of an author intimately familiar with the ivory tower. Kuang explores dark academia through the lens of anti-colonialism and the appropriation of non-English languages to feed the exploitative magic of the British Empire.
The magic system in Babel rests on a silver-powered industrial revolution where spells are cast on rare metal by the impossibility of a perfect translation. The friction between an English or Latin or French word and its Chinese or Arabic or Sanskrit counterpart manifests a magical effect when it is embossed on silver and the incantation spoken by someone who is fluent in both languages and can hold that dichotomy in their mind. But language is alive and power shifts; as the European languages share increasing numbers of loanwords, the magical power of translation between them begins to lose its effectiveness. To maintain their power, the government and the academy look to the East, recruiting scholars born to tongues that are uncommon in England. Robin and his unusual cohort of classmates find themselves caught in the crux of this quest for new sources of power.
Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility. Scratch it, and the overt racism and sexism come bubbling up, and quickly spill over into physical altercations. The first of these occasions happens even before Robin arrives at the university, when his benefactor Professor Lovell beats him brutally for accidentally missing his lessons because he was absorbed in a novel. And then, in his first week at Oxford, Robin meets Griffin, a Babel dropout and member of the elusive Hermes Society. Having concluded that change could not be effected by peaceful means from within the academy, Griffin has vowed to bring down Babel by whatever means necessary, and he wants Robin to help him do it.
Babel bears the subtitle The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This is, then, the story of the radicalization of Robin Swift, who began life in a mansion in Peking, spent his childhood in the alleys of Canton, and found himself in the hallowed halls of Oxford but never quite at home. The story is told predominantly from Robin’s point of view, but each of the other members of his cohort get an interlude at a critical moment. In the end, the traitor is not a surprise, but more of an inevitably, in as much as the reader may wish for it not to be so. The allies, however, are sometimes surprising, adding faint glimmer of hope to this dark historical fantasy.
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