babel by r.f. kuang – a book review || an analysis on colonialism and history featuring cool magic

Babel (Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution) completely blew my mind away.

I read Babel a really long time ago, while I was knee deep in my dark academia phase, and it was utterly phenomenal. There’s no doubt that R.F. Kuang is a masterful storyteller, as clearly exhibited by The Poppy War trilogy ( which you should definitely read if you haven’t yet !!! ) but Babel took a completely different route than what I expected.

It was a completely unique discussion about a part of history I don’t often see in literature and I think that’s what truly got me so invested in this story. R.F. Kuang doesn’t try to subdue the message she’s trying to send in any sort of way, and a lot of people seem to be disturbed by this (ahem. that instagram review) but I’ll get more into my thoughts later on in the post.

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.

The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

*summary adapted from goodreads*

The entire gist of Babel is basically overtaking a huge empire that you’ve kinda been a part of for the longest time unknowingly and when you realise that they’re going to destroy your homeland, there’s only thing left to do – start a revolution.

okay fine perhaps that wasn’t the best summary but let’s go with it.

We follow our main character Robin- an orphan who’s taken from his homeland, Canton, and brought to London to learn the ancient of art of translation. He’s soon enrolled in Babel- the institution of translation at Oxford. Along his journey he makes a few friends, and unbeknownst to him, a few enemies as well, and they embark on the epic quest to topple Babel down.

First of all, the premise of this book absolutely ENCAPSULATED me. A book based on translation and colonialism seemed utterly amazing to me and written by R.F. Kuang too ??? count me in.

The main theme of this book is the critique of dark academia on a whole, while still being dedicated to it. Think of it as a love-hate letter to genre. It’s a compilation of linguistics, history, and translation all melded together into this marvellous and messy masterpiece, which ultimately gets its message through to the readers. It comes straight at you with a knife and forces you to acknowledge history that you’ve probably forgotten about and makes sure you won’t forget about it again.

The plot is intriguing, and even with the unsteady pacing, it still manages to remain strong throughout. However, in my opinion the characters truly are the ones who bring this story to life.

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”

Robin, oh boy how do I even start with Robin- He was the perfect main character for this book, and that is something extremely hard for a book that handles so many delicate topics to accomplish. He battles with his unsure sense of identity, never truly understanding his place in society. Is his supposed to stay loyal to his homeland which he was unjustly taken away from, or to the land in which he grew up in but was never truly accepted in? His conflicting emotions on this matter and grappling sense of unsureness about where his loyalties lie make him such an riveting character to read about.

Now in no way is he the most strongest or badass character you’ll ever meet (he’s no Rin that’s for sure) but he’s still an utterly likeable character, and at the end that’s what matters. He has me rooting for his throughout his journey, *go robin!!* and he is the ultimate cinnamon roll.

Ramy is a character I didn’t expect to love but by the end I identified with him the most . For starters , he’s Indian and truly appreciates the magic of Indian mangoes (I fell in love with him at this point) and his bond with Robin was something special. I think Ramy’s character balanced out Robin’s splendidly – their polarising personalities complement each other perfectly

Victoire is headstrong and a complete badass in every possible way. Her character arc was so satisfying to read and I loved seeing the relationships she formed with the people around her.

I’m not going to in depth about Letty’s character because of spoilers but if you wanted to know my thoughts – I absolutely despise her 😀

“How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’

‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.”

Even while adoring the characters, my favourite part of the book would easily have to be the historical aspects R.F. Kuang incorporated in this book. I find it phenomenal how she managed to include more than a single country’s experience with the impacts of British colonialism, and she definitely did her research wonderfully.

The information is accurate and enlightening, bringing forward history we’ve known previously in a new light. It made me so happy to see little bits and pieces of my country’s history sprinkled in between the pages, the feeling of recognition by seeing a familiar name on the page that stirred inside of me was an enthralling experience.

The themes are not nuanced in any way, it lacks all sense of subtlety, and obviously this seems to be a turn off for many people, but i personally appreciated how cognisant R.F. Kuang is with all the problems taking place in that era and how the ideas were presented in such a headstrong way- in all honesty, it made me value the book even more.

It was a bit hard for me to get used to how information heavy this book is, and it did feel like a history textbook at times however once I got accustomed to it, I started to truly appreciate it.

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible, how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods.”

My only problem with this book was the pacing. It’s all over the place and unfortunately not at all balanced in the book. Often times the book is filled with too many descriptions which become monotonous at times and are basically reiterating the same facts over and over again, and the action scenes aren’t evenly distributed. The ending was way too rushed for the ‘epic showdown’ which was ultimately lacklustre in the end.

Going back to my history textbook point as previously mentioned, if you’re a history geek you would definitely enjoy it a lot more (let your inner nerd shine through) but if it isn’t really you thing I can easily understand why one would get irritated with the info dumps .

The magic system was SO DAMN COOL but I just wish we could have gotten the chance to see it better utilised in the book. I feel that R.F. Kuang was simply too dedicated in providing social commentary that she sort of forgot that she set up a magic system for this book in the first place. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book and I would’ve preferred if there was a better insight into it.

“She learned revolution is, in fact, always unimaginable. It shatters the world you know. The future is unwritten, brimming with potential. The colonizers have no idea what is coming, and that makes them panic. It terrifies them.

Good. It should.”

In the end though I’d consider Babel to be the zenith of dark academia literature and it’s set a completely new standard for the genre. Along with being a nerdy analysis on colonialism, it’s packed with complicated topics and intuitive social commentary, along with a side of characters that add another spectacular layer to the book.

I’d highly recommend this if you’re into any of those pretentious dark academia books and love to see good representation in historical fiction !!! But don’t go in expecting a high stakes action packed fantasy, or else you shall be severely disappointed.

I’ve written a few reviews for Babel before but I felt like I truly needed to compile all of my thoughts on this book in a single place so this is my very rushed review for this masterpiece of a book. If you’d like to check out my instagram review which is shorter but maybe a tiny bit more cohesive I’m linking it down below!

ps. i rated it 5 stars over here, but after further reflection my current rating stands at 4 stars.

Have you read Babel before? What were your thoughts on it? Do you have any other dark academia book recs?? If so, tell me in the comments!!

that’s it for this review, i hope you all enjoyed! also i’m so sorry for my absence on here, i’ve had exams for the past two months so getting posts out was very hard but i’ll *try* to be more active on here. also i’ll catch up with all of your posts as soon as i can!! ❤ have a wonderful day ahead !!

20 thoughts on “babel by r.f. kuang – a book review || an analysis on colonialism and history featuring cool magic

    1. it’s so good, i hope you love it!!! ahh it took me over a month to read because of the size, but overall it’s definitely worth it!! ❤ THANK YOU!!




    Liked by 1 person

    1. I HAVE RISEN FROM THE DEAD GASP !!! AND AHH ANOUSHKA THANK YOU SO MUCH! i think i actually love writing reviews now hehe



      Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome review, Suhani! I always love getting your thoughts, so, please, bring on the word vomit whenever you feel like it! 🤗

    Anyway, as you may already know, I really enjoyed Babel, too, but we do disagree on a few details 😂 Like, I am definitely one of those people who was super annoyed by the lack of nuance and the fact that R.F. Kuang felt the need to spell everything out for me as though I didn’t have a brain of my own… IT WAS INFURIATING! 😤 The magic system, though? I thought that was handled masterfully and I didn’t really feel like I needed more background on it. It gave such a well-rounded feel to the entire world! Then again, though, I did study years of linguistics at university, so maybe that helped with piecing some of the clues together 🤔

    I do agree with you that the pacing felt way too rushed at the end, though! Personally, I would’ve liked everything about the whole revolution aspect to be a bit more complicated, nuanced, and emotionally messy – I feel like it would’ve made the ending much stronger. But I obviously still really enjoyed the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. THANK YOU!!! ahhh i definitely shall be word vomiting more then ;))

      ahhh i definitely understand that point of view as well, it was very head-strong lmao. ooooh yea, perhaps if i had a better insight on linguistics it would’ve helped 😂

      yes exactly!!! after everything that happened the revolution just seemed a bit too.. simple??

      so glad you love the book too !! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVE THE way you pen your reviews! So raw and genuine and so much personality shines through! I also just put one and one together – I follow your bookstagram and never realised THIS is your blog haha. My day is made!! Also you have sold this author to me – I need to explore their writing.

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