Normally I avoid reading fantasy books but will make an exception for outstanding works of the genre, such as Babel by R. F. Kuang. I became intrigued by this novel when reviews described it being a fantasy about language translation, set in Oxford at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. I love reading about how books are translated, and I’m fond of poking around in the 19th century. Then I saw that LitHub found Babel on 7 best-books-of-2022 lists. That convinced me to try it.
I find most fantasy novels to be mediocre. This is due to the genre being flooded with works, and because exceptional works of fantasy have set the bar so high that reading anything less is boring. Babel reminded me of Harry Potter books, The Golden Compass trilogy, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
Babel is mostly set in Oxford, England in the 1830s. Follows four students who study at the Royal Institute of Translation – known as Babel. It is the most powerful college at Oxford in Kuang’s fantasy world. Babel is a fantasy novel rather than a historical one because silver can be embued with powerful charms via knowledge in language translation. This magical silver powers the industrial revolution and is a metaphor for capitalism. Actually, for the evils of capitalism.
I would call this a YA novel except that the protagonists are college students. Kuang is impressively creative in her writing and plotting but I was somewhat disappointed with her characterization. I would say they were excellent for genre writing — because genre fans will love them. But I thought her characters lacking compared to literary writing. The main character, Robin Swift, is half Chinese and half English and grew up in Canton, China before being taken to England to study languages. He never felt Chinese. He always felt English. Ramy is a Muslim kid from India, his cultural background doesn’t come through either. People are prejudiced against these two for their physical appearance, but I never felt they were different from the English characters internally. The only character that emotionally acts a bit different is Victoire, a girl originally from Haiti. Letty, the fourth in the cohort, is a privileged English girl and acts exactly that.
Even though this is a fantasy it focused on the historical sins of England in the 19th century. It judges Imperial England harshly, which it deserves. Actual history is like studying the Holocaust — full of horrors. There is an infinite amount of history to hate, but finding any real understanding is rare. I question making an attack on the past for the basis of a fantasy novel, but then I don’t take fantasy novels seriously. I feel they are mostly fun, and mostly for young people.
The story comes across as another YA tale of Blows Against the Empire that’s no more realistic than a Star Wars sequel or The Hunger Games. It’s hard to take its plot seriously since it involves magic. But maybe young readers will be inspired to read nonfiction history about the period, such as Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. On the other hand, the plot is compelling from a reading point of view.
And I do believe R. F. Kuang is deadly serious. That makes me worry about her solution supporting violence. Her novel is really a metaphor for our times. It asks: How can we enjoy the fruits of evil when we know the price of them will be so much suffering? But the woken judge the past so severely without realizing the future will judge them just as harshly. We all need to read What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. I’m afraid the future will look back on the 21st century and judge anyone who flew in an airplane or ate meat like we feel about 19th-century slave owners.
If Babel is just a fun fantasy that mixes in history and uses the English imperialists as its bad guys, how should we judge it? But what if it’s a philosophically deep challenge to history? Then, how should we judge Babel? Does it condemn the past fairly? Or is it more complicated? How many nonfiction books will we have to read to really answer that question?
James Wallace Harris, 1/15/23