Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang, published 23 August 2022. Yes, the title is a mouthful, but in keeping with the story and definitely one of the reasons I wanted to read this dark academia alternate history/historical fantasy.
The tower of Babel, the heart and centre of the Royal Institute of Translations, is also at the heart of this fictional early Victorian era story. Like the TARDIS it is bigger on the inside, housing more than eight floors of libraries, laboratories and lecture rooms. It is the centre of silver-working, engraving translations into bars of silver to cover all aspects of a certain word or topic, so that nothing gets lost in translation, for magical effect.
The story is told from the POV of Robin Swift, who is a half-Chinese orphan brought to Britain by Professor Lovell, a member of Babel, when he was about ten years old. He’s been learning languages since to prepare him for enrolling at Oxford University.
At Babel, Robin learns that silver-working is Britain’s main tool for its industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Which is why the secret society Hermes is trying to tear down Babel, because it enables the British Empire to keep colonising and exploiting other countries. That Hermes is doing so at all costs, resolving to violence, is what makes Robin waver about whether he’s doing the right thing over and over. What is Robin willing to sacrifice for the greater good? Will he resort to violence or find a different way to stop Babel?
What I liked about the book is that despite it being a dense read, it is a page-turner. It was easy for me to get immersed in the story and sympathise with the characters. The writing is easy to follow and I enjoyed reading every footnote and agreed with Kuang’s assertions about translations and the hard work of linguists.
Yet, the main message of the book, colonisation is bad, made for a tough read from about the half-way point of the book. It is being ham-fistedly hammered home at every opportunity and I found myself rolling my eyes more and more often.
Furthermore, and this is already hinted at in the subtitle, Hermes doesn’t shrink back from the use of violence. Violence that would be seen as terrorism these days. I’m not a big fan of ‘the ends justify the means,’ which is why it took me nearly two weeks to actually finish the last part of the book. This is not due to the writing suddenly lacking, it is just because the questions Robin faces and the decisions he faced made me uncomfortable. However, that was supposed to be the book’s purpose, to make you think while enjoying a good story.
3/5 Harpy Eagles