With its hundreds of spires and stone facades, Oxford University looks like a cathedral of knowledge, unassailable and ancient. What dangerous texts might its highest towers and deepest libraries contain? R.F. Kuang’s Babel perfectly employs Oxford as a backdrop for the story of a group of eager students in the middle of a magical war. A standalone fantasy that takes its cues from The Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Babel is a methodical, unforgiving examination of the cost of power and the pain of achieving it.
When the family of a young boy named Robin Swift dies of cholera, a stern English professor takes him away from China. He arrives in an alternate Oxford, England, in 1828 and is thrust into lessons in language so that he might one day join the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. Throughout his years of study, Robin hopes to eventually attain the highest knowledge Babel offers: the mysteries of silver-working, a magical process that has helped the British Empire maintain its worldwide dominance for decades. Sensitive to the injustices wrought by Babel and silver-working, Robin joins the Hermes Society, a secret organization that steals silver and sabotages the expansion of British power from within. Are Robin and his fellow members revolutionaries? Or are they doomed to be powerless witnesses to the march of empire?
Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy is one of the most acclaimed fantasy series of the last few years. A finalist for the Nebula and Locus awards, the series was vicious and engrossing, dark and thoughtful; I personally couldn’t put it down. Babel feels different from her first trilogy, but this is undoubtedly a Kuang novel. There’s a sense of inevitability in her work, each book moving toward a climactic breaking point.
This carefully built momentum results in an addicting read. Kuang takes her time ramping things up, focusing for the first half of Babel on Robin’s assimilation into school and broader English culture, finding friends and growing up. Kuang nails the ups and downs of being young with precision. It’s nearly impossible not to compare Babel to Harry Potter, but Kuang’s magical teens feel more grown-up, more layered than J.K. Rowling’s well-known trio. Their banter, camaraderie and angst consistently satisfy as anger and loss harden them, and as they eventually realize the horrible truths they couldn’t grasp as young students.
Kuang, who is completing her Ph.D. in East Asian languages and literature, has gone to incredible lengths to wrap the history and evolution of language into silver-working, which is an impressively unique magic system. The Bablers, as students in the Institute of Translation are called, uncover meanings lost in translation and historical connections between words and then etch them into silver bars. If the words have a strong connection, magic happens. It’s a wonderful way for Kuang to incorporate a topic she clearly loves and deeply understands.
Ultimately, Babel asks a pointed question: What is the price of power? The novel’s full title is Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, which both gives the book a sense of realism and hints at Kuang’s ultimate answer. British colonialism perpetrated destruction on every civilization it encountered. Babel provides a long overdue reckoning, cast in silver and doused in blood.