My first read of 2023 was Babel by R. F. Kuang (Harper Collins 2022). Before I get into the review, I must mention the Harper Collins strike. Employees with the company have been on a strike since November, and they are striking for fair wages, stronger diversity commitments, and union rights. To read more about the strike, visit @hcpunion on Instagram. This reviewer and booklover supports their efforts.
This review will be structured a bit differently. This is due, in part, to the sheer volume of reviews the book has received. I’m also trying very hard to avoid spoilers.
Babel or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (I’m just going to call it Babel) was not a five star read for me. And man, does it pain me to say that. I like the duality of fantasy and historical fiction, and I absolutely dorked out over Kuang’s magic system that relies on the diversity of languages and the exploitation of others for the benefit of the Crown.
I studied Shakespeare at Oxford – Teddy Hall, which does get a little shoutout in the novel. (You know I had to fit that in here.) How Kuang describes Oxford and how Robin feels about it, are so beautifully rendered and perfect. Oxford always felt like magic to me. From the grounds, to the old turnstiles that were still used, to the invisible scout who cleaned my room – it smelled of history and magic. And this novel captures that perfectly.
I also loved how the plot of this historical fantasy was framed in very real aspects of colonialization and exploitation as well as classicism. (Some folks have bemoaned that they didn’t “get’ the novel because they’re white. That’s a BS racist and xenophobic take.) There is a lot to love and appreciate in this novel.
So why wasn’t it a five-star read?
The storytelling itself. It is at times redundant and repetitive, with a heavy focus on telling not showing. Additionally, this is not a history of the translators’ revolution – it’s the history of one translator, Robin. It might attempt to encompass more, but it is not successful. The failing to put flesh on the bones of the other major characters is my biggest complaint about the novel. Robin is fully and beautifully developed, but Ramy, Victoire, Griffin, and even Letty deserved more. (The brief “interludes” served only to annoy me.) Even the secondary characters needed more life breathed into them. Instead, they’re flat pawns pulled out to fill a gap and advance the plot. And there was so much potential with all of them.
Would I recommend this novel to everyone? No. The writing style isn’t something that everyone would appreciate, and not everyone likes fantasy. But refusing to read works like this because you don’t want to “feel guilty” or don’t think you can relate because you’re white is doing yourself a great disservice.
I liked Babel. I didn’t love it, but I liked it.