2 Sept 2022

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays: BABEL by R.F. Kuang


Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays introduces readers who are unfamiliar with the Adult SF/F genre to books, authors, and discussions all about the vast expanse of the world of Adult SF/F!


Author: R. F. Kuang
Series: N/A
Source: Audiobook via Audible
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: August 23, 2022


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.
Robin Swift is a young Cantonese boy, orphaned by the plague that swept through Canton in the 1820s. He is claimed by Professor Lovell who becomes his guardian and takes him to England. He spends the rest of his childhood training in classical languages to prepare him to enroll in Oxford’s institute of translation known as Babel. His life at Oxford is difficult, not only because of the studies but also due to bigotry and racism, but he settles into a comfortable routine and even makes some friends. As time continues, he begins to wonder if Oxford isn’t as noble as it seems, and what sorts of secrets might be hiding within the tower’s walls.

This was a long book. Probably a little too long for my liking, but I understand the want for nuance and also keeping books as standalones. (Please, publishing, duologies are right there!!) I really enjoyed the premise and the plot and thought they were well executed overall. There was also a lot of meaningful and well written history incorporated throughout, adding to the setting and depth of the work. I learned many painful things about the colonization and economics of this time that were always glossed over in my history classes.

I think part of my non-enjoyment stemmed from the footnotes. In the audio version, when you come across the footnotes, they are read right then in a different voice. It so completely removed me from the narrative, the story, etc. that it took away some of my enjoyment. I appreciated the explanation at the beginning of the novel about what would and wouldn't be included because it set the tone for the footnotes. Although, while listening, I questioned whether a white author would have to make all those explanations for why they are changing something. Spoiler: No, they wouldn't. In theory, Kuang shouldn't have HAD to either, but I did like learning about the main "differences" between this and "reality."

I enjoyed Robin as a protagonist and felt that his development and depth was adequately explored. I had a more difficult time connecting to the remaining characters, though because we were so heavily in Robin's POV. But by having the main characters were from different ethnicities and backgrounds, it allowed Kuang to explore the varying ways that colonization, education, and displacement affected different people in a way that was enlightening and meaningful. While this may have been done through a modern lens, the sentiment of colonization remains the same and I appreciated this layer to the "history" of the time that is missing from the other novels that have looked at this time period and this type of story.

The book does have some slight fantasy elements – essentially though it’s a commentary on the industrial revolution just using some slight silver magic. I would call this more "Historical Fantasy" as it takes a lot of elements of the current history and knowledge we have but adding in a twist of some elements being magical/fantastical. I tend to enjoy those more than a lot of others do, so that's something to take into consideration.

This book is written as an exploration of language, colonization, racism, sexism, identity, and as a critique of academia (which was awesome). These are heavy topics and Kuang focused very deeply on language and etymology, especially as it related to the magic system.

I love this idea, but the way it was executed in the work wasn’t engaging. The characters would engage in lengthy dialogues about the origin of words and their “match-pairs” in other languages; this topic would also be explored through paragraphs of exposition. While this was interesting at first, the abundance of these discussions drastically slowed down the plot and became less and less engaging to read. There were also several other instances where the work felt repetitive, further slowing down the book.

The amount of linguistic exploration so dramatically slowed down the plot and character development that it made this work much more boring for me than it should have been. As someone who studied translation in university, I loved the discussions around "authentic" translation and how to make sure you were keeping the spirit of the text.

But I did enjoy the book overall and since I really disliked The Poppy War, I am glad I actively enjoyed something by Kuang!

Have you read this book? What was your favourite part?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting! I cherish each and every comment. If you leave me a link to your blog, I will do my best to comment back!