Rating - ⭐⭐⭐
"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, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution is a standalone adult fantasy/historical fiction novel by R.F. Kuang.
Apparent unpopular opinion incoming. I started spooky season off with a decidedly not spooky book. I had this on my hold list at my library but wasn't expecting it for weeks. Clearly, I ended up getting it way earlier than expected, so I picked this up right away as my first read of the month and a continuation of my dark academia September reads.
Going into this, I didn't read the synopsis so I didn't really know what I was getting myself into other than the fact that this has dark academia vibes. I ended up finding it...okay? This has a really high rating of a 4.47 average, so I felt like I wasn't getting it when I found the story to be a bit dull.
Or maybe dull isn't the right word, but I didn't find myself particularly enjoying what I was reading, especially the later half of the book. As such, I ended up giving this a middle rating of 3.
Let's get into the details.
While this book wasn't as successful of a read as I wanted it to be, I can't deny that R.F. Kuang can write. Of course, all authors should know how to write, but she can write. The story is well written, but not in a way where the wording is too flowery or chunky as it is rather easy to digest. There were also quite a few quotes that stood out to me, which is a tell for good writing in my book.
My favourite quote being: "...they were almost in love with each other - not quite yet, because true love took time and memories, but as close to love as first impressions could take them." As someone who is a fan of slow-burn romances, this quote sang to me.
All things said, I did have some issues with the writing though. For one, the interlude chapters from the supporting characters' perspectives didn't add much to the narrative for me. Or maybe not that it didn't add much, but it was rather odd that there was one chapter only that covered their backstories. For two, though I will get more into it later on, the pacing was a bit off.
Finally, due to the nature of the story and its focus on language, this is very heavy on the subject. So, prepare yourself for a lot of non-English words and terminology.
This is a book that doesn't hold many surprises in terms of the plot. The synopsis tells you pretty much all you need to know about the majority of the book. The problem here though, at least for me, is that I didn't read the synopsis, so I had no idea what this was going to be about which brought up some issues, particularly with the pacing and direction of the story.
In hindsight, looking at the extended title and actually reading the synopsis makes the direction of the story clearer. This fundamentally follows the build-up of conflict, through the perspective of Robin, resulting in a revolution. I didn't read it, though, which impacted my reading experience negatively.
As a result, the direction and escalation of the story ended up catching me off guard. The pacing was a bit on the slower side, with the story mainly following Robin as he goes through his years of schooling. So, when it suddenly switched gears and we were in a full-blown revolution, it felt like a very sudden jump straight toward chaos.
One other aspect of this book that I wouldn't necessarily say impacted me negatively, but impacted my reading experience nonetheless, was the foreshadowing. I don't know whether or not it was meant to be as obvious as it was, or if it was just me happening to catch things, but I was able to easily tell exactly what the climax of the book was going to be. While I did have a nice 'aha' moment, it never feels great to be able to guess that.
Weirdly enough, although my enjoyment did fall the more I read, I liked the ending the best. Without going into spoilers, of course, it was different, but it suited the direction of the story as well as the character motivations very well.
First of all, the map is in 3D and I love it. Although it may not be feasible to do maps like this, considering this is set primarily in Oxford alone, it made for a nice touch architecturally.
Moving on though, the concept of Babel is interesting as both an institution and as a setting in general. I did want to see more of it though, and the magic as well. This does end up focusing more on the construction of magic rather than the magic itself. Of course, it makes sense considering that this does focus on silvermaking and the use of language as its source of power, but a big part of me wanted to see more of it being used or in action.
Finally, due to the time period and the setting, there is a strong focus on colonialism. Of course, it isn't great to read about that, along with racism and sexism, but again it makes sense and there were a lot of resulting conversations that were crucial to both the narrative and character arcs.
One issue I had with the story, or characters really, was despite the fact that they went to Oxford and have had good educations, they have very dimwitted moments. I don't know if it is because I've been exposed to a lot of mystery, but I kept screaming internally at them for not noticing something or making a really bad decision that they should have known not to.
That aside though, I didn't mind the characters. Robin was very diligent and single-focused, aside from a few mess-ups. I found myself questioning (a lot) how Robin got himself into the situations he did. He had very strong views and emotions about his situation, and more often than not that led him to be impulsive which wasn't great to read about.
As for the supporting cast, Victoire (who I spent most of the book calling Victoria)and Letty I cared less for and they fell more into the background. Ramy though I thought was a good side character to have supporting Robin. I wasn't crazy about how most of their story arcs concluded, but that didn't bother me too much.
Did I love this as much as I wanted to, no, not even close. I am disappointed because I did want to love this because R.F. Kuang + dark academia + magic sounded like the recipe for success. It wasn't, however, but I find myself surprisingly not that disappointed since my rating didn't dip below three stars.
I think this is the kind of book for people who studied linguistics because there is no shortage of that in this. If you are looking for something more fantasy heavy though, I don't think this will hit the spot because this is more of a speculative fiction with fantasy elements.