BookTok Review: “Babel” by R.F. Kuang

By Amelia Tirey|Staff Writer

6 mins read
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With BookTok still booming on TikTok, creators spent the end of 2022 raving about their favorite reads of the year. Not only did my book list grow exponentially because of this, but one book skyrocketed to the top of my list due to the amount of chatter it caused. So naturally, here is my spoiler-free review of the New York Times Bestseller “Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution” by R.F. Kuang. 

Typically referred to as “Babel,” Kuang’s fourth book was released in August 2022. As a big fan of their previous works, I picked up “Babel” not long after it hit the shelves and prepared myself to take on this 550-page read. I decided that it would be my winter break read and ended up speeding through this book in two weeks because of the captivating story, characters, narratives and themes that it beautifully displays. 

The story takes place in the historic city of Oxford in the early 1800s. We follow Robin Swift, a boy from Canton, China who is saved from a deadly illness by Professor Lovell. Robin is then taken in by Lovell, who eventually takes Robin to Britain to study linguistics at Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. Robin studies alongside his friends Ramy, Victoire and Letty, and they spend their time at the university immersing themselves in their studies and the lavish lifestyle of the Oxford elite. 

The students of Babel study for a chance to work with the famous silver of the institution, leaning into the magical part of the novel. The premise is that the British Empire relies on silver to make its infrastructure better, ships faster and guns more efficient by using the understanding of language to infuse the silver bars with magical capabilities. The fantasy element of the story is menial and primarily drives the themes of systematic and racial division in the story. 

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The main characters are all native inhabitants of British colonies, and they are given the lucky chance to serve the empire through its world-class institutions. Robin and his friends are enthralled by the utopia-like atmosphere of Oxford, but they grapple with the understanding that they will never be viewed as true members of high society because of their skin color. The book explores themes of identity, colonization and power and asks the question: but at what cost? With the tagline “Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal,”  the book’s themes are captivating and clearly come from a deep understanding of the imperialism and exploitation that is rooted in our society.

The story itself is expertly crafted, with incredible attention to detail when it comes to history and the understanding of the power of languages. Educated at prestigious institutions such as Georgetown, Cambridge, Oxford and Yale, Kuang has an extensive background in history and linguistics. Her understanding of academics is prevalent in this novel and the book is packed with historical footnotes to help the reader get acquainted with the time period. Some of the complaints about the book refer to the slower parts of the story, where it is written like a linguist’s lecture. I personally enjoyed reading these sections, partially because of my love for history and academics in general. It really draws the reader in and puts them in the shoes of the students at Oxford. Although it is not for everyone, this enthralling concept is designed to keep the reader engaged during the slower moments of the overarching heavy story. 

R.F. Kuang’s “Babel” is a fantastically written story that does a marvelous job of handling difficult themes in a manner that drives the story forward and captivates the reader. The characters are complicated and compelling, the world-building is terrifying and enduring and the writing is breathtaking. I am very pleased that I moved this book to the top of my to-read list. I recommend this book for its dark academic vibes, genuinely mesmerizing plot and its coverage of difficult themes. The story it tells is an important one of the dangers of imperialism and power, whose dark stain still lingers today.

Amelia Tirey is a sophomore majoring in history and minoring in political science and music.

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