The thing about empire is that it is one of the easiest choices for a villain in fiction. A large, oppressive, overwhelming force for the characters to fight against. Authoritarian by design, ever expanding, singularly focused on consuming other cultures and nations to feed its own endless hunger. Just look at Star Wars and its evil Galactic Empire. Right away, in the opening crawl no less, we know who the villains of the story are. The reasons for positioning an empire as a villainous force should be obvious when filtered through the lens of history. Empire have left a long, bloody trail, expanding and collapsing throughout the millennia, from ancient Babylon to Portugal, the last “official” empire to dissolve with the transfer of Macau back to China in 1999. However, one modern empire rises above them all in terms of lasing cultural influence; the British Empire.
R. F. Kuang returns, following up her excellent Poppy Wars trilogy with her latest novel, the amazingly titled Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. Fans and followers of hers on social media might know this book better as “the Oxford novel.” Before we had a title, all we knew was that the book would take place in and be centered around University of Oxford in the early nineteenth century, at the height of the British Empire. Anyone familiar with Kuang’s preceding books by now knows her style and what sort of tone to expect, while understanding that Kuang will still find so many ways to surprise us from page to page. She does not pull any punches in her writing, never shying away from the darkness or serious subjects, never sugar coating the casual cruelty of her villains. In that same vein, her protagonists do not remain untouched by the plot. The heroine of The Poppy War struggled and fought and embraced the use of cruelty and violence in equal measure to fight her foes, oftentimes surpassing them. The characters in her stories are complicated, and they make complicated decisions. To that end, it could be said that Kuang has mastered psychology to a terrifying degree, delving the depths of her characters’ conscious and wielding that to draw in readers.
Unlike The Poppy Wars trilogy, which took place in a fictional setting heavily inspired by China, Babel takes place in a world more resembling our own circa the early 19th century. The British Empire dominates the globe, the United States is on its way to becoming an empire of its own, the transatlantic slave trade is beginning to diminish somewhat, although the cruelty of racism is as prevalent as ever. The history of the world in Babel has progressed more or less alongside our own, with the very big difference that magic has been introduced to the world. Of course, the people who this magic do not refer to it as such. In the world of the novel, transcribing words in different languages onto silver bars can create powerful effects, somehow capturing the differences and nuances of translation. To use the first example in the book, a silver bar might have the French word triacle engraved on one side, with the English treacle on the other. Two words that mean very similar things, but are no longer exact matches due to the changes in usage across cultures. The silver captures that difference and produces an effect suggested by the combined meanings. In the world of Babel, these amazing powers have been the tools of empire for centuries, if not millennia. The British Empire wield great wealth and power by controlling much of the world’s silver, using it to expand their borders and enrich their cities. Kuang goes to great lengths to show us how reliant England is on this precious resource. However, despite the magic, Kuang also keeps things historically accurate and realistic. They may have magic, but this is still the same British Empire.
If one were to select a single genre for Babel to fall into, the most accurate would likely be anti-colonialism. Sure, it is also historical fiction, historical fantasy, and school fiction, with touches of mystery and a dash of action. But it is clear from the first chapter what the main theme of this book is: the examination and deconstruction of empire. However, it takes some time for the main characters to realize this. While they understand how bad empire is on a fundamental level, the very setting itself is working to keep them relatively content. They are students at Oxford, after all! Rather than focus on the land or wealth that empires extract from their colonies and territories, Kuang focuses on something else, something that makes a lot more sense based on the introduction of silver to her world: language. The British Empire needs the languages of other cultures and parts of the world to make their silver work, and they need native speakers of those languages to make the translations with English. As explained early on, you need to live and breath a language to translate, you need to dream in it. Of course, English is not the only nation in the world with silver. A major plot point follows their conflict with China in the lead-up to the first Opium War, and examines how threatened England feels by the notion that another nation might not cow to their every demand. China has its own silver, and it does not need England’s.
Our main point-of-view character in Babel is Robin Swift, although Robin Swift is the name he chooses for himself. Originally from Canton, China, we never actually learn Robin’s real name. He is merely referred to by his pronouns until pressed to pick a suitably English sounding name in the very first chapter, a practice which still occurs among Asian immigrant in English speaking countries. Robin has a suitably tragic background, as keeping with what can expected of an R. F. Kuang novel, and it is this tragedy which will later fuel so much character growth. We first meet Robin as he suffers from cholera alone in his family’s home, the last one left alive, staring at the corpse of his own mother but too weak to move away. Enter Professor Lovell, an English translator who sweeps in, curing Robin and taking him away to England as his ward. However, this is no fairy tale. Lovell is extremely racist towards Chinese people, and never fails to tell Robin how is an exception to his race. He also refuses to adopt him or allow Robin to use his surname, forcing Robin to select his own instead. So much of Robin’s character throughout the book is formed in this early chapters, as learns never to stick his head too far out and to respect Professor Lovell in all things. He is kept hidden from most visitors, or otherwise ordered around and shown off. Robin quickly develops into an extremely smart, but very timid young man, believing that he is truly lucky to be given so many things by England, including entrance into the prestigious University of Oxford to study linguistics and translation. Kuang presents the story in a close third-person POV, meaning we are privy to Robin’s thoughts and feelings, understanding the reasoning behind his actions, but there is still some degree of separation. In many ways, Robin is a very relatable character. However, that relatability will certainly be amplified depending on your own background.
Robin is not the only character in the story, of course, and, being set in a school, he gains a close group of friends who are all dedicated to the study of translation. Like Robin, Ramy and Victoire both come from other countries that have suffered under the effects of colonialism. Ramy is from India, still under control of the British Empire, and Victoire is originally from Haiti, the world’s only successful slave revolution. The three of them are joined by Letty, the only one actually from England, although she faces her own share of difficulties through a large part of Babel by virtue of being a woman. However, she is still a white woman in England. While she does face bigotry, it never reaches the heights that is hurled at Ramy or Victoire by the darkness of their skin. Even during the scenes where the four are commiserating, there is always a slight imbalance in the relationship, something Kuang never forgets and makes sure to remind readers that these characters are not the same. However, a large part of the novel focused on the fierce friendship and loyalty between these four as they study together in Oxford, embracing their love of language and sharing their lives with one another. The tension is then based not on if this cohort will be broken apart, but when, and how heartbreaking will it be when it finally happens.
Babel is not an easy read; it is heady and honest, and Kuang has embraced some of the writing functions of the time period to really make this book feel like it fits in the time period. Occasional footnotes add both interesting context, such as word etymologies, or explanations for why certain things work, or expand on characters who may not share personal information with Robin. The twists in the story strike that careful balance of being inevitable, but surprising. We know that certain things must happen for the story to progress or to address the looming specter of colonialism. As in The Poppy Wars trilogy, Kuang’s interest in the intersection of history is on full display as she weaves real world history into this fictionalized setting, placing the first Opium War front and center as a major plot point, although the vast majority of the book takes place in England. While this book is certainly less overly violent than her previous work, Kuang is never afraid to let things get dirty and have characters walk in the much. Babel is an easy book to recommend, for both returning readers of R. F. Kuang and newcomers alike, and it is certain to sit with you long after the last page is turned.
Babel can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 1 week to 1 month, depending on your reading speed
Next on the List: Godslayers, by Zoe Hana Mikuta