Babel by R. F. Kuang

This book was one of the biggest published in 2022. I kept hearing people rave about it online and in podcasts. I knew it was about language and colonialism and was a fantasy that takes place in an alternative past. Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect when I finally picked it up a few weeks ago. While I did enjoy it, I’m not sure I would rate it quite so highly as so many others.

The main thrust of the world is that England is a world power due to silver, and not just because of its value as a precious metal. When similar words from different languages are engraved on bars of silver, the subtle differences between the words are brought out by the bar. Babel is the name of the tower and school of translation at Oxford. A cohort of an Indian, a Haitian, a Chinese, and an Englishwoman bond over their experience at the school. But as they start to learn the consequences of their school and its work, danger and revolution ensue.

In many ways this book reminded me of Kindred. Like that book, Babel really helps the reader feel what the characters are struggling with, in this case colonialism. And the characters come alive, whether you love them or hate them. Being a bit of a linguist, I also really loved how translation is a central part of the story. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of explication, more telling than showing in some places. That said, I am not sure how else the writer could have shared such a complex topic. But for me the explanations never really interfered with my enjoyment of the story. I was carried along nonetheless. In the end the book was a bit long but still worth the read.

My rating: 3.5/5

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