Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang

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?

CONTRIBUTOR(S): Chris Lew Kum Hoi (Narrator), Billie Fulford-Brown (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: HarperAudio
YEAR: 2022
LENGTH: 546 pages (21 hours 46 minutes)
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Fantasy, Historical, Literary

Queer Rep Summary: Gay/Achillean Main Character(s).

BABEL is a story about translation and colonialization, taking English-colonial power and the logic of empire to a place that feels both brilliant and inevitable in world where the magic of translation is more literal than metaphorical. 

England as a colonial power has an empire that runs on silver, more specifically, on magic completed through translations between words in different languages, where the gaps between meetings, the parts "lost in translation" are used to do magic. The worldbuilding is dense, but layered gradually as the main character learns more about the system he's been brought into.

Robin was a Chinese boy with a mysteriously-provided series of books in English and a tutor to help him learn the language with the fluency of a native speaker. While still a young boy, he loses his mother to a plague and is cured by a mysterious English scholar who takes him back to England and raises him to keep his fluency in Mandarin while learning even more languages in preparation for study at Oxford University. When he comes to Oxford, he swiftly becomes friends with the other three students in his cohort, all scholars of Translation. 

Where BABEL excels is in its worldbuilding and characterization, the willingness to approach topics in layers as the characters and the reader have new context to understand what's happening. The characterization is nuanced and layered, as much about what characters don't say as what they choose to voice. The focus on worldbuilding is so strong that at times it seems like events are telegraphed a long way away, discernable to an even mildly genre-savvy reader, but also obfuscation was clearly not a narrative goal here. The full title is "Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution", that alone reveals the tragedy on the horizon long before all the players are revealed. There are footnotes throughout which add additional context and imply that at least some of the characters will survive to the end, but the specifics of their futures are kept vague. This is not a mystery to solve, it's a crash in slow motion which could be anticipated a long way off but was allowed to happen through greed and stubbornness. The college didn't have to exploit marginalized people from other countries who are plucked from their homes in order to help those countries be exploited further. But the college did, and so this revolution has been brewing for years, with these four scholars the (un)fortunate ones whose studies coincide with the boiling point. 

Truly excellent, well worth reading, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

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Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, classism, racism, religious bigotry, colonialization, murder, death.

Moderate CW for alcohol, bullying, racial slurs, sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, blood, physical abuse, fire, violence, gun violence, child abuse, epidemic, terminal illness, injury detail, medical content, war, slavery, parental death.

Minor CW for excrement, deportation, child death

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A large tower on the grounds of Oxford University, with a spiral of birds flying around it


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