When done right, good fantasy transports us to a different place, introducing characters and realms we’d never have believed possible. But great fantasy should also make us reconsider the place we are as well, challenging us about our own beliefs or choices or offering us a new way of looking at the world we know. Author R.F. Kuang is no stranger to dark, difficult fantasy stories, as her epic (and excellent) The Poppy War trilogy more than proves. And she’s generally outdone herself with her latest effort, the dark academia standalone novel Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of Oxford Translators’ Revolution.
A book that’s about the magic of language as much as it is literal magic, Babel is a tremendous effort—a meticulously researched period piece, a primal scream from the traditionally unheard, and a story of friendship gone horribly wrong. But its determination to make sure its (admittedly important) message is heard, means a significant chunk of this doorstopper’s 500+ pages feels didactic and lecture-y, rather than fully transformative.
The story follows Robin Swift, a young Chinese boy whose entire family succumbs to cholera in 1830s Canton. Taken away to England by Professor Richard Lovell (whose reasons for being in China are not explained until well into the novel), Robin is educated in Ancient Greek. Latin and Chinese—to maintain his fluency—in preparation for his future as an Oxford scholar, specifically as a student at the Royal Institute of Translation, colloquially known as Babel. A literal tower (because of course it is), this is the home of Britain’s most powerful magic, where silver bars are inscribed with words that allow them to perform all manner of specific tasks, that keep the country’s machines of industry and war running.
Most of this is unknown to Robin, who falls in love with the picturesque nature of Oxford, the higher calling of his studies, and the cohort of misfit friends who form his Babel class and found family: Charming Calcutta-born Ramiz Rafi Mirza, quiet Haitian-born Victoire Desgraves, and overachieving Letitia Price, an English girl from Brighton with a powerful admiral for a father. Together they must navigate the inevitable struggles of higher learning alongside their unique experiences as marginalized groups in a culture that doesn’t truly respect (or even want) their presence.
The searing honesty with which Kuang depicts what life would have been like for non-white, non-native Oxford students is commendable—and frequently uncomfortable because this is not a book that pulls any punches when it comes to what the rich, white men who hold power in England think of those who are not like them. But as the scope of the story moves beyond Babel’s walls to issues of natural security and war, Robin and his friends must decide where their loyalties lie: With the school and system that is willing to open doors for them if they behave as model minorities, or with their homelands that are currently being exploited by England’s insatiable need for silver (and with it, power.)
To be clear, Babel is an incredible feat of writing, mixing etymology, history, and linguistics in a way that often feels akin to alchemy. Its prose is beautiful, perhaps never more so than when it’s at its most obviously academic, delving deep into the meaning and lineage of specific words and waxing poetic about the transformative power of language. In Kuang’s world translation is literally a power akin to magic, the basis for a system of silver working that derives its power through the gaps of meaning in our words that have been lost over time.
And this is a story with a message behind it, too—Babel is deeply concerned with colonization, racism, and empire, with what is lost when we absorb languages and cultures not our own with little respect or care for the people who created them. It wrestles with the idea of what we owe to one another—whether England has a duty to use its superior silver-working skills to help countries and populations without access to such magic live better lives and what it means that people repeatedly choose creature comforts for themselves over alleviating the suffering of others. And it unflinchingly depicts the various forms of bigotry and misogyny that Robin and his friends face in their day-to-day lives and academic careers, and is honest about how much of the world of Oxford is driven by corruption and systemic racism.
But while Babel trusts its audience to be able to wrestle with complex questions of linguistics and identity, the novel seems nervous that readers will not be able to fully grasp its themes of oppression and prejudice without help. So, rather than allow the horrors of its story (and the lies at the heart of the enterprise that is Babel) to speak for themselves, the narrative is frequently interrupted by long screeds about why imperialism is bad and the damage it can cause to people both living in occupied lands and the countries doing the conquering. It also assumes a monolith of views—among both its readers and several of its supporting characters—that reflects a similar lack of subtlety in the presentation of these ideas.
Given how subtle the book is on so many other fronts, its jarring refusal to assume its readers are approaching these issues in good faith is frustrating, to say the least. Particularly when so much of the final third of the novel relies on its audience being able to comfortably hold contradictory, occasionally combative views about many of its lead characters at the same time, needing us to care about them for the story to work even as they each make a series of increasingly less grounded decisions. (For what it’s worth, I’m also not sure that it ever quite manages to make the case for “the necessity of violence” in its title, but your mileage can and will likely vary on that point.) Dark choices are made and tragic events take place as Babel barrels toward an ending that somehow feels both strangely inevitable and deeply shocking.
Babel is absolutely the most ambitious fantasy novel you’ll read this year. It’s a book with plenty of flaws, but its obvious depth of research, lovely prose, fascinating linguistic-based magical system, and utter dedication to giving voice to sorts of topics we rarely see tackled at this level of depth in this genre make it a book that’s worth your time. It’s not a perfect story—but as you’ll learn within these pages, almost nothing is—but Kuang absolutely gets an A for effort.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.