Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a historical fantasy epic that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British Empire

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Hardcover, 544 pages
First published August 23, 2022
by Harper Voyager
4.5/5 stars

Babel was our family June book club read. We spent 4 weeks slowly reading and honestly that was way too much time, even though I lost some of the momentum we still had some great discussions.

For all of us this was our introduction to RF Kuang, the cover and YouTube word of month sealed our pick.

We all agreed that the author brought her extensive knowledge of language and colonial history to bear in this deeply engrossing and unsettling historical fantasy. In this world language has power and silver can harness meanings lost in translation, and Britain will stop at nothing to control this alternate imagining of the Industrial Revolution. 

It’s not a time period I read often but this was an entertaining read. Great when we discussed each part, speculated what would happen next and marvelled at the author’s talent. This is a big book, its a commitment yes, but when you have likable characters, an intricate plot and some mystery, it's isn't hard to get lost in the pages.

I will definitely be reading more by Kuang, in fact I am almost finished her latest Yellowface.

This book was part of my 2023 Reading Off My Shelf Challenge

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