Babel is the bestselling fantasy novel by R.F. Kuang, the author of The Poppy War trilogy. Babel won the 2023 Nebula award for Best Novel and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It is set in alternate version of 1828 Great Britain where the country is the greatest Colonial power in the world (similar to our timeline) but the difference in Babel is the reason that Britain leads the world is the ability to manipulate silver using magic to produce technological wonders.
In the Babel timeline silver is the most important commodity in the world, and the knowledge of how to exploit silver to produce useful devices and effects is the most important technology in the world. This “technology” involves exploiting the differences in interpretation between meanings of words in two different languages. Kuang has crafted one of the most astonishing and creative magic systems ever deployed in epic fantasy, while also cleverly designing something that would appeal to book lovers and word enthusiasts everywhere. The Tower of Babel, located on the campus of Oxford, houses the Institute of Translation where academics with linguistic knowledge can try to find word pairs in different languages that produce magical, beneficial effects in the real world. Because Babel is in England, the United Kingdom is able to leverage their monopoly over this knowledge to dominate the globe economically, militarily, and culturally.
The story of Babel is told through and by following the fortunes of four teenage students who have been accepted to and attend Oxford’s Institute of Translation. In this way, the story becomes a familiar tale of students navigating their way through a complicated and unfamiliar/familiar academic system (e.g., the Harry Potter series, Ender’s Game, the author’s own The Poppy War, etc) and young people maturing and experiencing different aspects of life for the first time (many, many coming of age novels, like The Wise Man’s Fear).
In an interesting twist, the four protagonists of the novel are all members of groups that are marginalized in the time Babel is set in. They are Robin, an orphaned Chinese boy who is brought to England from Shanghai by an Oxford professor, Ramy, a Muslim boy from Calcutta; Victoire, a Creole-Haitian girl and Letty, a British girl who applies to Oxford after her older brother is killed in a freak horse and buggy accident in his second year at the University. Kuang expertly uses the identities of the four main characters to reveal, highlight, and dramatize the various ways oppression and power can interact with race, gender, class, and national origin. This is an extremely important and effective aspect of the book; it is thrilling to see these topics depicted (especially so well and in such a nuanced fashion) in an award-winning, best-selling novel of speculative fiction.
For example, the girls in the group, Victoire and Letty, are forced to live nearly two miles away from Oxford because there are no student residences that are “suitable” for unmarried women. Of course, it is considered completely impossible for female and male students to live in the same building, even if they each had their own quarters with locked doors. Even in the lodging that they were able to find the girls are subject to suspicion about their “propriety” and are expected to do some fraction of the cooking and cleaning, even though they are paying rent. Additionally, female students are so rare at Oxford that some of the professors refuse to interact with them, pretending not to hear them or see their raised hands in class. When in the Oxford library, the girls need to be accompanied by one of their male student colleagues at all times in order to use the study areas and access the reading materials found there.
However, while Robin and Ramy have male privilege that affords them the ability to be viewed as “proper” Oxford students in most academic settings that matter, their class, religious, and racial identities cause them to suffer a whole host of indignities on and off campus. Ramy, being a dark-skinned South Asian man, is regularly rejected admission to cafes and eateries when he attempts to enter on his own; he is only grudgingly allowed to socialize with his peers when accompanied by Robin or Letty who are ostensibly white. This is a curious situation, because Robin is Chinese, and really only appears white from a distance, so it is merely the unfocused blurry image of an all-white space that the proprietors are trying to maintain. In fact, Robin is the character the reader spends the most time with and we get to see the many ways his foreignness and assumed inability to assimilate as an Asian man of Chinese descent leads to multiple awkward social interactions with Oxford students, faculty and townspeople.
The central dramatic tension in the novel is the question of how our quartet of outsiders will handle the contradictions of being members of marginalized groups who have been granted access to the most elite halls of power and sources of knowledge that the Oxford Institution of Translation represents. They are expected to use this power and knowledge to assist Britain in maintaining hegemonic control over their countries of origin, or at the very least, over other people who belong to the marginalized groups they belong to (Chinese nationals, Indian nationals, American nationals). It’s quite interesting the way that the important international conflicts are represented by the individual members of the central quartet of main characters.
Of course, the book is called Babel and the story's plot is centered around the act of translation between myriad languages, in a place that is literally an ivory tower. Kuang's riff on the story of the Tower of Babel is thrilling, but even though we know how the story must end, the path that Babel takes to get there is well worth the time invested.
Author: R.F. Kuang .
Length: 560 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyage.
Date Published: August 23, 2022.
Date Read: July 29, 2023.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★★ (5.0/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A- (4.0/4.0).