Babel by R.F. Kuang is Necessary Reading

R.F. Kuang’s highly anticipated dark academia novel Babel is out now!

Babel or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators Revolution is the newest fantasy novel from bestseller R.F. Kuang. Published by Harper Voyager and at a whopping 560 pages, Babel is a hefty feat that dives into what is lost to history, translation, and revolution. Chock full with the aesthetics of dark academia in a fictionalized Oxford, Kuang has created a novel that is necessary reading on anti-colonization and power structures. 

The novel follows Robin Swift, a Chinese boy that is extracted from sick and poverty-stricken Canton and delivered to England by an Oxford professor. Immediately themes of otherness, microaggressions, and diaspora are explored as readers experience Robin’s confusion as to why the world around him treats him differently for being a “foreigner.” This is something that threads the book together when Robin is quickly accepted into the affluent world of Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford. It is here we meet our secondary characters named Letty, Victorie, and Ramy. 

These characters all represent different aspects of British colonialism and power differentials; whether it’s assimilating from India or Haiti, or in Letty’s case, attempting to be a woman in a largely male-dominated space. It’s dark academia to its full extent, while expertly carving out how privilege is rarely discussed within the genre. Readers will explore college-level ideas, such as the disenfranchisement of academia at the university level. Despite the novel taking place during the early 19th century, Kuang is able to make it quite modern. Robin has to deal with class structure as a by-product of being tokenized as an asset to not only the school, but by extension the British Empire. 

Seeped in magic, Kuang brings realistic historical fantasy to the pages of Babel by introducing silver translation bars that can be engraved by the students of Babel. It’s a system that allows her to weave in her expertise in languages from her own personal academic journey. Riddled with Cantonese, Latin, Greek, and a few other languages, Babel succeeds at enlightening its readers while the protagonists master them. Babel introduces academia as a gift to Robin and his band of outsiders, and consistently reminds us who is usually able to afford to go to prestigious schools and who is not. Kuang knew the scope that she was aiming for and hit it with precision. Babel is a deliberate exercise in commentating on not just genre but modern historical fantasy by choosing to engage and over-explain how dangerous, discriminatory, and predatory people in power are to minorities. 

The narrative introduces villains as philosophical ideas. The villains are the corrupt and the powerful, but also the privileged. Kuang will make you fall in love with characters while revealing how terrible ties to an empire or dangerous ideologies can be. Despite the need for narratives like this, Kuang forgoes fleshed-out characters to have them be human chess pieces for a greater goal. Classmates quickly turn into mouth pieces, professors turn into stand-ins for war, and a secret society quickly becomes the only way to stop the perpetuation of these atrocities. Global conflict looms as the Empire tries to smuggle opium into China to make them dependent on the British for natural resources. The narrative kicks into high gear at this point, emboldening characters to embrace their paths toward a better world. Do they stand up to a society that has only utilized them in order to manipulate their mother lands or will their assimilation into power make them turn their backs on their heritage? These are all ideas Kuang explored in The Poppy War trilogy, albeit through a different lens. While I prefer the meshing of ideology and characters in her first works over Babel, this novel is still a great meditation on how alienating, insidious, and cruel a world that allows for capitalist endeavors to outsource and abuse those less privileged for profit is. 

The novel’s pacing from here on out is a bit all over the place, at times feeling indulgent in Kuang’s academia. There’s a lot of repetition on the central themes of the novel and sentiments that are reiterated. There are vast footnotes to ensure readers understand the racism, misogyny, or classism being explored. There are chapters that feel like Socratic seminars on revolutionary texts despite it being presented as the aloof and mysterious Hermes Society. If true academia is what you seek within fiction, Babel delivers. Kuang, despite some writing blunders, has broken down how revolutions are formed, the lengths people will go to fight for what they believe in, and delivers a great philosophical framework for who should choose violence for the greater good. While the novel can be slow and muddled, by the end Babel hones in on Robin and the choices he and his friends must take to in order to save themselves from their institution and empire. 

Interesting, thought-provoking, and necessary, Babel is a novel that I firmly believe everyone should read once. It’s not the easiest novel to read, but it’s intellectually rewarding to open one’s eyes to systems that need to be dismantled and rebuilt to allow for true equality and freedom. It won’t be for everyone, but that is precisely why Kuang’s novel is needed. Challenging and beautifully-written, you can pick up Babel by R.F. Kuang at your local indie bookshop or anywhere fine books are sold. 

By Cidnya Silva

Cidnya is an English Literature student with a passion for Film, TV, and anything they can read. Focusing on mental health and queerness, they hope to shed light on how media brings us together.

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