Friday, September 16, 2022

Book Review: "Babel" by R.F. Kuang

Title: Babel
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Page Length: 560 pages
Publication Date: August 23, 2022
Rating: 4.5 // 5 stars

What can I even say to describe this book? It was, in all honesty, a masterpiece. As I was reading, all I could think about was how much research, effort, and skill went into crafting it. Babel is a book with so much depth that tackles so many difficult themes and it was simply amazing. 

This is my first book by R.F. Kuang. The Poppy War is on my TBR, but I know I'll need to be in the right mindset for it based off of the trigger warnings I've seen and friends who have read it. However, the hype around Babel had me really intrigued and wanting to start it the moment I got my copy. 

Babel is not a book that you read in one sitting and breeze through. It has so many different elements to it that interweave that I think it would be impossible for me to read it in one sitting, even on a reread. It took me well over a week to get through, but I honestly thought it aided in my experience that I took my time reading it. 

This novel covers such a wide expanse of time (I want to say around 10 years?). To finish it and then look back at where it all began just 560 pages prior was a bit of a mindblowing moment. To think that Kuang was able to write a succinct story that covers so much time in just one self-contained book and have me still connect with it is a true nod to her storytelling skills. 

As I have a degree in English Writing and have moved from a different country to the UK, so much of the beginning of the novel felt so familiar to me. Of course, my experiences and who I am is wildly different from Robin and what he has to go through. But seeing a book character obsessed with reading and language and authors I also studied who is going through the same cultural shocks made me feel very connected early on. 

The characters truly shine in this novel. We have a solid cast of characters and it's incredibly easy to fall in love with them (like our main four) or to hate them (like antagonistic classmates or professors). Each had depth, had struggles, had varying life experiences that, at times, clashed with each other. It was fascinating to see how the characters and their relationships changed over the years and span of the novel. I have to say, my favorite is definitely our main narrator, Robin, though I have lots of love for others. 

One thing that is very prevalent in this novel is the way it addresses colonialism, racism, misogyny. Whereas many Western historical fiction books romanticize history and paint it in a prettier, more accepting light, Babel does the opposite. It pulls forth the dark, violent, and harmful past of the British Empire and the Western world. It critics it, it fights it, it seeks to dismantle it. While this is a historical fantasy, so much of what the book critiques was happening in real life. It was so powerful. 

Part of the exploration of colonialism comes from the way that language and translation was included, for example, in the British Empire profiting off of foreign languages while simultaneously looking down on said languages and where they originated from and treating foreigners who speak them as lesser beings. The dissonance and inner conflicts the characters go through as foreigners benefiting from studying translation at Oxford was something explored throughout the entire novel that ultimately leads to an explosive ending. 

Again, as someone who studied English and just loves learning, I loved all we got about language and etymology and translation. The amount of research that must have gone into this novel just in terms of etymology and languages must have been massive. I never felt like I was reading a boring textbook for school. Instead, I felt like I was learning to think about the world and communication in a new way. 

Lastly, I'll speak on the magic system of silver working. It was incredible. The magic was based around language and translation combined with silver to create magical effects. It's honestly so impressive that this historical setting relies so much on magic yet the magic talk is kept rather subtle. The magic isn't the forefront...the language and the plot and the themes are there instead. But the magic system plays such an important role in the book because of how reliant the country was on silver. This system is so unique and unlike anything I've read before and it just added that extra element to an already fantastic novel. 

Now, I will say, I subconsciously kept a distance I think as I saw loads of people online (specifically TikTok) posting videos of them sobbing and saying the ending was devastating. In that, I suspected at least part of the ending and honestly expected more heartache. I think if I had gone in without knowing other people's reactions, I probably would have also been sobbing. But I was mentally preparing myself the entire book and looking for all the subtle foreshadowing as to what would come. 

Overall, this was a phenomenal book, even from a purely objective standpoint without factoring in my emotional connection. It was amazing, it was so well-written, and it is sure to be a modern classic. Even though the plot is nothing like The Poppy War, I find myself so excited that I still have more works from Kuang to explore in the future. 

Thanks for reading!

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