Book Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

Hi everyone!

For today’s post, I have a review of Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang.

Babel is Kuang’s fourth published novel and falls under the dark academia sub-genre, as well as historical fiction, and has a touch of fantasy. As a lover of dark academia and Kuang’s writing, I was thrilled to finally be reading this book!

Robin Swift is only a young boy when he is taken from his homeland, Canton, and brought to England by the mysterious Professor Lovell.

After years of training in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, Robin arrives at Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. He is quickly enamored by the institute and everything it offers — endless knowledge and with it the assurance of a bright future. Most importantly, he learns of ‘silver-working’, a practice in which enchanted silver bars produce a sort of magic through the art of translation. Additionally, he quickly becomes acquainted with a close group of peers which he will come to see as family.

However, when he accidentally encounters the secret Hermes Society, Robin’s world is turned upside down. As the story progresses, he must come to face the fact that Babel is not all it presents itself to be.

I adored this book.

First and foremost, the reading experience is unmatched. At first, I thought I would struggle, considering it is quite a long book. Yet, I found myself flying through it, completely immersed in the story and always eager to turn the page. Seriously, even when I wasn’t reading this book, I was wishing that I was.

Kuang explores themes of colonialism, racism, colorism, language, and violence, and she is ruthless. What I love most is how she revolutionizes the genre by exposing the vicious roots of academia, rather than romanticizing it. Like the protagonist, we see how knowledge is used as a tool for oppression by those in power. Kuang is masterful at raising important issues and questions that will leave readers thinking long after they put down the book.

The characters all come alive in the narrative. I loved Robin, but most importantly, I understood him. His excitement and eventual rage, pain, and sorrow are all perfectly conveyed to the reader. We see him go through many transformations, so much that by the end he no longer feels like that young boy we met in chapter one. In addition, the side characters all feel distinct, with their own personalities and beliefs. (I have a soft spot for Ramy, as I loved him with all my heart.) If I had to give a single critique, I only wish we got to see a bit more of the side characters — particularly Victoire.

I feel one could talk about this book for hours and still not cover the full scope of it. R.F. Kuang is an exceptional talent, capable of breathing life into stories and characters that will no doubt stay with readers.

Babel is one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. Careful it doesn’t become my favorite read of the year, period.

If you’re a fan of dark academia or overall great literature, I’d say this is definitely a must-read.

And now, I leave you with a favorite quote and my rating!

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I hope you enjoyed this review and wish you the loveliest day, wherever you are! 💞