As a white English man, I think I am the single most important person to listen to when it comes to the value of this book. I am joking obviously, but it is super nice to have a single object I can hand to family members when they say “Why don’t you like the homeland?” Now I can just reply, “here, read this.” Babel is a fabulous, hard to categorize story (Fantasy? Historical fiction? Manifesto?) from the increasingly popular RF Kuang. This book has already been lauded and praised by everyone I know, so I have been dragging my feet getting around to it. As you might have seen on our best-of list, I finally got to it, and it definitely holds up.
Babel tells the story of Robin Swift, a Chinese boy who is essentially kidnapped by his English father (who refuses to identify with Robin) and put to work in an enormous magical tower called Babel making money for the crown. In this reimagined early 1800s, Babel is the world’s center of translation and magical silver-working. This magic allows the user to manifest the differences between words that share roots that are 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 in order to feed its capitalist machine.
While the silver working of Babel is cool in theory, I found it extremely confusing and nebulous in practice. So it’s a good thing that it actually doesn’t feel that important to the story. Babel’s real strength comes from its metaphors and ability to perfectly capture and present the evils of colonization and capitalism perpetuated by the British towards anyone with a pulse in this era. It reminds me a lot of 1984, in that it feels a little closer to a manifesto or academic paper than a story—but the characters and their individual journeys elevate Babel to something more than a dry paper that makes really good points.
The cast of Babel is fabulous and feels like true windows into both the mindsets and circumstances of a number of interesting individuals who find themselves in odd situations. Robin is a Chinese ex-pat who was stolen from his country and has spent the majority of his time in a Britain that hates him. Yet, he is afforded enormous leeway compared to others in his context and finds himself lulled by the trappings of capitalism, many of which directly benefit him. Yet, he is constantly asked to continue works that will hurt his original homeland, and this leaves him in a troubling moral place. This is just one of the extraordinary circumstances of our cast and all of them are fabulous narrators that really bring the world to life. I loved every single character, even the antagonists, and the book does an incredible job engaging your mind, heart, and sense of ethics.
While I have mostly good things to say about Babel, I will note that Kuang’s writing still pulses with fury and anger that burns through her narration. This is in absolutely no way a flaw, and in fact, feels very appropriate to the subject matter as we should feel anger and despair as to what was done to real people in this era that go unmourned. But, reading a huge book like this that just radiates anger can be very emotionally consuming and draining. I found it hard to pick up sometimes and had to steel myself repeatedly to get through it. Just an FYI.
Babel is just as good as everyone is saying and very much deserves the many accolades that it has been winning. Kuang did a fabulous job of taking her anger over the sins of the past and turning it into a clever and very consumable warning for generations to come. Babel is a triumph and you would be well served by checking it out.
Rating: Babel – 9.0/10