Narrator: Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Billie Fulford-Brown
Published by HarperAudio on August 23, 2022
Genres: Dark Academia, Historical Fantasy
Length: 21 hrs 46 mins
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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 of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel's research in foreign languages serves the Empire's quest to colonize everything it encounters.
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports 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? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
Babel is a fantasy world of the early 1800s offering an exploration of race, historical imperialism, literature, and language. The Industrial Revolution is powered by silver working, magic involving silver and words and translation. We follow the four characters Robin, our main characters, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty. All have been pulled out of their lives and sent to Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, known as Babel, to learn translation and silver working. Each is an outsider and they form a kind of family for each other, providing comfort and camaraderie, but also disappointments and arguments.
Babel is engrossing. First, I do love words and meanings, and Kuang goes into details and long-winded interludes about language and etymology that some may rather scan past but that made the book memorable for me. The politics of language is fascinating.
The characters grow and learn and reevaluate their outlooks through the book. It’s hard to both love Oxford and hate the British Empire for what it’s doing to places like China and India and how it treats foreigners and the lower class. Our characters are put through the wringer and while certain events are inevitable, they’re also devastating.
I listened to the audiobook which worked quite well. Having a second narrator for the footnotes drew attention to them without disrupting the narrative.
Overall, Babel was fabulous. I couldn’t put it down.