Babel by R.F. Kuang. Where do I even start with this incredibly hyped and very popular book? With editions from Illumicrate, Fairyloot, Waterstones and Barnes & Nobles it looked like everyone had this book!
This dark academia fantasy novel is set in Oxford in the 1800s following international students in a translation college at the uni. In this world, silver working provides the power that was made possible in the real world through the industrial revolution. This involves matching similar words across languages and utilising their meanings. But despite relying on foreigners for this work, the English still maintain their “superiority” over people of colour and look to exploit them and their work for their own gain.
The etymology side of this book is absolutely fascinating. The sheer research that Kuang must have done on such a large range of languages is incredibly impressive and really demonstrates the beauty of language.
Kuang also integrates the colonial ideals of exploitation of non-whites for the gains of the empire throughout this novel, and the impact both mentally and physically this takes on people of colour who have been taken under the wings of the empire. These people have been given the privilege of an education not offered to the rest of their countrymen, and they feel like they should be grateful for this. But they were only given this because there was a “use” for them that white students couldn’t provide. And none of the innovations developed will be passed on to China, India, the Caribbean – the places which provided our main characters with the culture and language that Oxford and the Babel Institute finds so useful. Seeing this complex play of emotions and manipulation through the lenses of our characters throughout the novel is fascinating and heartbreaking.
I really enjoyed how Kuang interlinked real history, historical events and technological innovation, with the magical potential discovered in this world. It adds an extra weight to the racism and sexism portrayed, as the reader can’t escape by thinking this is just a fantasy. These events happened, in a slightly different manner, in real life.
I really cannot speak truly to everything this book contains and all of the aspects of it. This book is a work of art. Also, as a white woman I’m not going to be impacted in the same way that others will be. But. This book is god damn gorgeous. I will say, for the reading experience, it is a very slow read. That is usually something that I really don’t enjoy out of a book, I like a fast paced read. However, it works absolutely perfectly within this book. I found myself wanting to savour and relish every sentence and I was more than happy to make my way slowly through this book. So go into this expecting it to be slow, but don’t let that put you off if you’re usually a fast paced reader like me.
On CAWPILE I rated this: Characters: 10, Atmosphere: 9, Writing: 9, Plot: 9, Intrigue: 9, Logic: 9, and Enjoyment: 10 which gives a score of 9.29 and a 5* rating!
Highlight here for content warnings: racism, colonisation, racial slurs, death, violence, xenophobia, classism, child abuse, grief, war, sexism, suicide, murder, gun violence, misogyny, death of parent, emotional abuse, enslavement, torture, physical abuse, cultural appropriation, hate crime, islamophobia, trafficking, gaslighting, addiction, confinement, drug abuse, infidelity, self harm, kidnapping.
In my opinion? This book is 100% worth the hype. It’s a gorgeous, multi-facited, read that has inspired me to reach for more books from R.F. Kuang. I’m hoping to read The Poppy War in December! This will sit pride of place on my shelves and is a definite contender for my book of the year!