Babel, or the Necessity of Violence – R.F. Kuang

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 545
Release Date: August 23, 2022

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. 


I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up Babel, or the Necessity of Violence because I didn’t read the synopsis, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Babel follows Robin as he’s swept away from his home in Canton to live in England with Professor Lovell and prepared in all manners to attend Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel. 

Throughout the beginning of the novel, there are sinister and racist undertones as Robin is reeducated in the manner of an English gentleman. It isn’t until later in the novel when Robin attends Babel that those undertones become overt.

Colonialism and all the associated racism are the central theme of Babel. Robin and his cohort, Victoire, Ramiz, and Letitia, wrestle with their place at Babel, where they’ve been, and where they want to go. Robin and Letitia wrestle with these more than Victoire and Ramiz for vastly different reasons.

Babel is slow. Kuang takes her time introducing the world and the characters as she prepares readers for the whirlwind of a ride that Babel is by the end of the novel. Part of what makes Babel a slower paced novel is the focus on academics, namely language. There’s power in language and that’s something Kuang makes abundantly clear.l
Overall, Babee, or the Necessity of Violence is a deep dive into colonialism and language. The slower pace may be difficult for some as Kuang digs into the intricacies of language, however the characters’ stories will keep you reading. 


Have you read Babel? What did you think?

One thought on “Babel, or the Necessity of Violence – R.F. Kuang

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