My Rating: 5 stars
Many thanks to Harper Voyager and NetGalley for the ARC. This book is being released today, August 23 2022.
Robin Swift is an orphan plucked out of Canton by Richard Lovell, an British professor who raises the boy with one goal: to enter the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, also known as Babel. Babel is the center of silver-working, a process of enchanting silver with translated word pairs that is used to heal the sick, perform parlor tricks of wealthier Londoners, and, most importantly, bolster the British military to maintain imperial rule. I have one word for this book: WOW! It is clear from the first page how much time, effort, and love went into this book. Kuang does a fantastic job weaving fantasy with historical fact. The worldbuilding just blew me away. And the languages! I can’t speak to the accuracy of any of them, but it seems that Kuang really did her due diligence.
She also does a great job building the characters. Robin and the three other students in his cohort, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty, become fast friends. However, their relationships with each other, both as a group and each individually, are incredibly complex and shift continuously during their years together. Since he is the main character, we spend most of the book in Robin’s head, and his character arc is wonderful. He starts out as shy and conflict-avoidant and watching him change was heartbreaking yet also satisfying. I won’t say much else since I don’t want to spoil anything, but the range of emotions he goes through over the course of the story felt quite realistic.
A major aspect of this book is the political commentary. It takes place in an alternate version of the Victorian era, so we see quite a bit of historically accurate classism, sexism, and racism. Babel is largely a statement on the violence of colonialism. However, while this all takes place in the 19th-century, almost all of the political commentary is relevant today, particularly in regard to academia. On one hand, the book is a love letter to Oxford, but it also contains scathing critique. And I can say that as someone within academia (and hating it), all of Kuang’s criticism is fully warranted.
Overall, Babel is a masterpiece of the historical fantasy genre. It’s a book I’m going to be returning to again and again and recommending to everyone I talk to.