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Babel by  R.F. Kuang
Historical fantasy



Once a year, we break our own rules and share a book from earlier in the year that wowed us.

by R.F. Kuang

Quick take

Knowledge is power in this potent, Oxford-set tale about the magic of translation and the tumult of revolution.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Literary


  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Brainy


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Academic



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?

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Babel.

Why I love it

Every book lover knows words have power: the power to make you laugh, teach you something new, or make you ugly cry on a park bench. But what if words had power literally? What if uttering the right syllables could cure illness or turn you invisible? Would a world in which words held such power be a better world, or would that power inevitably be corrupting?

These are just some of the questions posed in Babel, R.F. Kuang’s magnificent fantasy epic set in 19th-century England. The novel stars Robin who, after being taken from his home in China, is sent to the prestigious translation institute at Oxford University. There, he learns about silver-working, a method that harnesses the powers of translation to create magical effects. But as Robin uncovers the ways the British Empire uses this power, he is soon torn between pursuing the academic life set out for him and joining forces with an underground organization working against the institute.

We have a tradition here at Book of the Month every December: to reflect on books we didn’t feature from earlier in the year and choose one to highlight as our “yearly look-back” selection. This year, we knew it had to be Babel, a book so special I’m still thinking about it months after I first read it. For anyone seeking a whip-smart novel that boasts great fantasy world-building with the storytelling flare of a 19th-century novel, this will be a decadent, mind-expanding treat.

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Member ratings (13,718)

  • Brenda C.

    Sugar Land, TX

    Overall I thought it was a fantastic book. The author is so smart…had me looking up lots of words ????. Such a unique story. The only thing I didn’t care for was the length of the “siege (got boring)

  • Alex T.

    Berkeley, CA

    Babel is spectacular. This was a stunning introduction to Kuang’s works for me. The parallels that are drawn between the violence of translation and that of revolution and revolt… breathtakingly done.

  • Hannah E.

    Fresno, CA

    This book is magical! I really don’t have the words to properly describe the emotional journey these characters took me on but I felt the love and hope and pain they experienced & strongly recommend.

  • Michelle M.

    Brooklyn, NY

    An incredibly immersive and magically intelligent book. I would love to read over and over again if it weren’t for the density, but the love of words and their histories is dripping off of every page.

  • Breana N.

    Lancaster , CA

    Imaginative excavation of foundations of empire, with a wry omniscient narrator & no romantic subplot. Highlighted favorite passages to reread bc it’s beautifully written. Dense, but I ended in tears.