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Babel by  R.F. Kuang

Historical fantasy

Babel

YEARLY LOOK-BACK

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

by R.F. Kuang

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Quick take

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

Highbrow

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, 400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Literary

    Literary

  • Illustrated icon, Brainy

    Brainy

  • Illustrated icon, Academic

    Academic

Synopsis

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?

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Babel.

Babel

CHAPTER ONE

By the time Professor Richard Lovell found his way through Canton’s narrow alleys to the faded address in his diary, the boy was the only one in the house left alive.

The air was rank, the floors slippery. A jug of water sat full, untouched by the bed. At first the boy had been too scared of retching to drink; now he was too weak to lift the jug. He was still conscious, though he’d sunk into a drowsy, half-dreaming haze. Soon, he knew, he’d fall into a deep sleep and fail to wake up. That was what had happened to his grandparents a week ago, then his aunts a day after, and then Miss Betty, the Englishwoman, a day after that.

His mother had perished that morning. He lay beside her body, watching as the blues and purples deepened across her skin. The last thing she’d said to him was his name, two syllables mouthed without breath. Her face had then gone slack and uneven. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth. The boy tried to close her filmy eyes, but her lids kept sliding back open.

No one answered when Professor Lovell knocked. No one exclaimed in surprise when he kicked through the front door – locked, because plague thieves were stripping the houses in the neighbourhood bare, and though there was little of value in their home, the boy and his mother had wanted a few hours of peace before the sickness took them too. The boy heard all the commotion from upstairs, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

By then he only wanted to die.

Professor Lovell made his way up the stairs, crossed the room, and stood over the boy for a long moment. He did not notice, or chose not to notice, the dead woman on the bed. The boy lay still in his shadow, wondering if this tall, pale figure in black had come to reap his soul.

‘How do you feel?’ Professor Lovell asked.

The boy’s breathing was too laboured to answer.

Professor Lovell knelt beside the bed. He drew a slim silver bar out of his front pocket and placed it over the boy’s bare chest. The boy flinched; the metal stung like ice.

‘Triacle,’ Professor Lovell said first in French. Then, in English, ‘Treacle.’

The bar glowed a pale white. There came an eerie sound from nowhere; a ringing, a singing. The boy whined and curled onto his side, his tongue prodding confusedly around his mouth.

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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.

Member ratings (15,930)

  • Kate M.

    Austin, TX

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Kuang’s writing style and world building got me hooked instantly. The character development & core issues and just everything tied together so heart-wrenchingly well. Awed, loved it!!

  • Drew H.

    Nicholasville, KY

    Babel is an epic, intimate rumination on the effects of colonialism and the necessity of violence to overcome it. Sweeping and heavy, Babel's themes and characters will stick with you. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Emily B.

    Mequon, WI

    Rebecca F. Kuang is an outstanding writer. I love how Babel tied mystery and an adventure with incredible knowledge about languages and where many words are derived from. I learned a lot!!⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

  • Angela L.

    Pecatonica, IL

    Couldn’t help comparing Babel to JK Rowling’s work; thoroughly entertained by Oxford’s make believe, silver-powered world. Rich in detail, sometimes repetitive, it’s easy to get “lost in translation.”

  • Grace P.

    Cumming, GA

    Honestly I had a hard time getting into this book, but I ended up having such an emotional connection to the characters. I literally spent a day crying over them once I finished it. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5

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