Babel by R.F. Kuang: An Unapologetic and Masterful take on Imperial History and Language

Welcome back to my blog, everyone! One of my best reads of this year, Babel is unlike anything I’ve ever read in my whole life. Leave it to R.F. Kuang to come up with a wholly new academic novel that will rip you apart and have you thinking about the wonders of translation and horrors of colonialism.In all honesty, I didn’t expect this book to slap as much as The Burning God did, but boy, I was so wrong. I hope you enjoy reading my review for this book, and that it could give you a reason to pick it up!


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 — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.


Rating – 5 stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Thank you NetGalley and Avon and Harper Voyager, , for presenting me with an ARC of this book in exchange for a honest review. Quotes mentioned in this post are from an advanced copy and are subjected to change.

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.

Babel is an intimately enthralling book that holds you by the throat and refuses to let go. It captures your attention right from the first line and takes you through eighteenth-century Europe laden with academia and linguistics leaving you dumbfounded in the wake of its awe. While I tried my level best, I find myself unable to do justice to the masterpiece that Babel is. I really suggest reading the book for itself because it’s so worth it.

“Violence is the only language they understand, because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock. You have no idea what you’re capable of, truly. You can’t imagine how the world might shift unless you pull the trigger.”

Part of the reason why I loved Babel as much as I do is that it’s achieved something no book previously did—a strange but fulfilling mix of dark academia and colonialism. If there’s one thing I appreciate R.F. Kuang for, it’s the unique voice through which she shows us the world. History is not supposed to feel good, it does only when told from the winner’s perspective. And the winners aren’t always right.

Robin saw a great spider’s web in his mind then. Cotton from India to Britain, opium from India to China, silver becoming tea and porcelain in China, and everything flowing back to Britain. It sounded so abstract –just categories of use, exchange, and value –until it wasn’t; until you realized the web you lived in and the exploitations your lifestyle demanded, until you saw looming above it all the spectre of colonial labour and colonial pain.

Most of the historical fiction books these days have boiled down to aesthetics and romanticism. While light-hearted reads aren’t as bad as they seem, we need to also acknowledge the brutal and dark pasts of the oppressed. A total of 65 countries gained their independence from the British Empire and that says more than enough. As a marginalised person, growing up learning about how our culture, traditions, language, and wealth were stolen from us was truly heartbreaking. Many famous monuments and structures wouldn’t stand as tall as they are without the labor of slaves from numerous colonies.

Babel acknowledges all of this respectfully while not straying far from what’s considered history. The magic system in the novel is quite intriguing, it’s built on the power of meanings lost in translation. While I can’t pinpoint how exactly it works, the book does a meticulous job of equating language to imperialism. The prose is simply stunning; it doesn’t beat around the bush but cuts straight to the chase while not sounding mediocre at all. The footnotes are an added delight, they provide the reader with extra information which cannot be delivered through an unreliable narrator.

Lie, Ramiz. This was the lesson, the most important lesson he’d ever been taught. Hide, Ramiz . Show the world what they want; contort yourself into the image they want to see, because seizing control of the story is how you in turn control them. Hide your faith, hide your prayers, for Allah will still know your heart.

Enter our protagonist, Robin Swift, plucked from the streets of Canton by the mysterious Professor Lovell. He is then brought to London where he trains endlessly to get into the prestigious university of Oxford. But Robin isn’t the only one. His companions—Ramy, Victoire, and Letty are found to share the knowledge of languages. All of the characters were written well enough for a remarkable standalone. Their points of view were super compelling to read, and the insight into their lives added much to the story.

While in Oxford, we meet various people, professors, and workers. Most of them are privileged white people, while a small number are people of color working for the Empire. The characters’ drive and motivation were admittedly one of the parts that the author does a great job showcasing. From Robin’s moral dilemmas to Letty’s futile excuses, the cohort’s thoughts were captivating to read about.

But what struck him most just then was the beauty. The bars were singing, shaking; trying, he thought, to express some unutterable truth about themselves, which was that translation was impossible, that the realm of pure meaning they captured and manifested would and could not ever be known, that the enterprise of this tower had been impossible from inception.

If you’re still considering picking up this book, I want you to know that Babel isn’t a normal fantasy novel, but a careful examination of violence and revolution told through the lens of a fictitious novel. Reading the book just because of dark academia does not do justice to the book, not in the slightest. I hope everyone who reads this book loves it as much as I did. This was truly a wonderful read!

about the author

Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and the forthcoming Babel. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, where she studies diaspora, contemporary Chinese literature, and Asian American literature.



14 thoughts on “Babel by R.F. Kuang: An Unapologetic and Masterful take on Imperial History and Language”


    Liked by 1 person

  2. i’ve been waiting so long to read babel, and even tho i got an early copy months ago, i really wanted a physical copy to read. your review made me even more excited to read it! honestly, im still terrified of reading it but it actually makes me ease at how it’s not just a fantasy novel but a careful examination and discussion on violence, revolution, imperialism, and more. excellent review queenie!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book sounds like it’s right up my alley! I am currently reading The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi which is a fantasy novel that explores colonialism during France’s “Beautiful Era”, and it’s absolutely mind-boggling how when you read about Europe in 1870’s it all sounds fancy and glamorous…but it was also during that so called beautiful era that the French people had “human zoos” (featuring BIPOC people of course).

    History is not supposed to make you feel good, not when it is told from all of the other perspectives. You are totally spot on. Great review, I’ll definitely check out this book soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed reading this review so much, thank you for writing it! I was initially attracted by the promise of dark academia but knowing that it’s so much more than that makes me even more excited to dive into it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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