R. F. Kuang, Babel: An Archane History
For me a five-star book is something that either I want to read again or something that is so profound it makes an immediate impact. There are lots of ways that books can be compelling: a unique idea, an interesting set of characters, a complex plot, an artistic use of the English language and more. Reading is also a subjective experience, so what appeals to me as a reader may be very different for you. I read a lot for both pleasure and work but these short reviews are a way for me to show my appreciation for the work and the craft of the author of the reviewed work.
Babel is a book that is going to evoke a strong reaction from its reader. I love languages and have done a lot of work in translating and so a magical system which is built upon the distortion in meaning between languages when they are engraved on a silver bar was a fascinating concept. The attention to translation and understanding languages as systems of value and meaning may be boring to some readers, but for me this discussion resonated strongly. It is a story which can celebrate both the magic of the university but also the dark side of academia when it becomes tangled with the goals of the empire. The book deals with the difficult reality of colonialism and the difficult choice that the non-white students at Babel must make as they discover the ways in which their work is being used to exploit the countries of their birth. This is a smart, well written story set in a nineteenth century world modified by the advantages of enchanted silver working.
Robin Swift loses his family to sickness in China and is given a chance to come to England to be prepared for Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. Robin Swift and his classmates Ramy, Victoire, and Letty become incredibly close as students at Babel, and as either non-white students or women they must navigate the wealthy, white, and male world of Oxford. They live a privileged life as Babel students who receive a full scholarship and a generous stipend, but they are also asked to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their studies. All of them are gifted students who have been trained for much of their life for this course of study. When Robin meets a person who looks like an older version of himself, he finds himself entangled with a secret society called Hermes. The Hermes society opposes the work Babel does to further the colonialism of the British Empire. Robin later sees the impact of the Royal Institute of Translation on his motherland of China and how it is allied with the trading companies who want to export opium to his home. This experience initiates a chain of events that sets Robin and some of his friends in opposition to the work of not only Babel but the empire itself.
R. F. Kuang does an excellent job of helping the reader see the world through the eyes of Robin, and to a lesser extent Victoire and Letty. It portrays the world of a brilliant young man who is often viewed as both important to the work of the Institute and by extension the empire, but who also is never fully accepted as a person who belongs at Oxford or in England. The characters are caught in the tension between the magic of the place and the devilish manipulation of the world using language. It is a sharp book both in its intelligence and its cutting and sometimes painful perspective on the abuse of both knowledge and people.