Tuesday 7 May 2024

Book Review: Babel - An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang (Fantasy)

Babel: An Arcane History
R.F. Kuang
Harper Voyager
546 pages
Bought Copy

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.

Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…

Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?


As someone who has studied various languages and holds a PGDip in Translation, Babel is naturally a book that appealed to me after a single glance at the blurb. I am happy to say that it didn't disappoint. This alternate-history take on Oxford University in the early 19th century caught my attention right from the first chapter and held it throughout. I loved the idea of the silver bars and the word play around them. This book is a treatise on colonialism; but it is also a love letter to language and the power it possesses. It was both thought-provoking and entertaining at once. The prose was a delight, as were the illuminating little footnotes scattered throughout. I am definitely keen to read more by this author and I am giving this book five stars.

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