Review: Babel by R. F. Kuang

Review by Eliza

This review first appeared at Leviathan Libraries.

It’s Oxford in the 1830s in an alternate timeline, where silver and words can be combined to make magic … magic that simplifies the lives of the wealthy and oppresses the poor. A young Chinese boy on the verge of death is plucked from Canton by a mysterious English professor and taken to England, raised to be a scholar who’ll attend Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation. Robin spends his life dealing with racism and when he finally arrives at Babel, he’s confronted with realities he can’t ignore. Can he really help a nation colonizing the world, oppressing his people back in his motherland, or will he stand up against an unjust system that hoards wealth for the rich and harms anyone born without means?

Babel by R. F. Kuan

Title: Tunnel of Bones | Publisher: Harper Voyager | Pub Date: 2022-08-23 | Pages: 560 | ISBN13/ASIN: 978-0063021426 | Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy | Language: English | Source: Netgalley| Starred Review

Babel Review

Babel is a long book, and some readers may balk at the length and heft. The author spares no details, even when it comes to university lectures. While there are a few places where perhaps this could have been trimmed a little, it all contributes to the atmosphere and to the reader’s understanding.

And that’s the only tiny bit of potential criticism I have for this book. Now that it’s out of the way, I can focus on the reasons why this could be my top read of 2022, why I believe this should be required high school reading.

First, R. F. Kuang has crafted a compelling story with a sympathetic protagonist and an intriguing plot. And this is where I’ll defend the choice to include a lot of details about class lectures and Robin’s studies. Sometimes, those moments almost obscure the plot so you’re surprised by developments. You can be so immersed in the learning part that it feels like a shock when something happens. And this matters, because in that respect, you’re sharing Robin’s experience. He’s had his feelings dismissed for so long and he’s under constant pressure to perform or be left without a home or revenue. Consequently, when things happen that throw his life off course, he’s stunned and has to process those things. It takes time to pull him out of one mindset so he can evaluate all the information. That’s realistic, and perhaps helps explain some of the decisions he makes along the way. There’s no abrupt shift from compliant dependent to radical opponent. Robin’s experiences unfold over time to lead him to the conclusion.

“…he felt also a thrum of excitement at the thought that perhaps his unbelonging did not doom him to existing forever on the margins, that perhaps, instead, it made him special.”

In short, the character development is meticulous and believable. Robin is not a hero from the start. He makes mistakes. And self-forgiveness is as much a part of his journey as learning to take pride in his heritage and where his allegiances lie.

Any word nerd will love the detailed information about word origins and meanings and how language changes over time. Without knowing anything about the author, it was evident they worked in translation. The communication theory student in me reveled in these parts of the book, because language and the evolution of language is so intrinsically connected to culture and heritage. So many take it for granted and don’t realize words and languages are powerful, and their power can be used for good and for evil. In our era of casual speech, with words thrown around online only to be deleted or retracted later because they were careless or harmful or got someone canceled, this book is a stunning reminder of the value of language and precision when we use language to communicate.

This book is about so many things. It’s about colonization. It’s about racism. It’s about slavery. It’s about free trade. It’s about identity, and what makes you who you are. Is it biology or your environment? It’s about autonomy and the right to self government. It’s about sexism. It’s about forces resisting enlightenment needed to deliver mankind to a new era, to equality. It’s about an individual’s hopes and dreams weighed against the greater good and the choices people sometimes have to make to take a stand for what’s right instead of doing what’s convenient.

Babel doesn’t sugarcoat the archaic and harmful views of colonizers who were openly racist and pro slavery and sexist. Yes, it’s an alternate history, but every page is infused with all-too realistic attitudes that fueled the British Empire and perpetuated harmful practices that destroyed millions while they raped and pillaged whole continents. 

“Only men like them could justify the exploitation of other peoples and countries with clever rhetoric, verbal ripostes, and convoluted philosophical reasoning. Only men like them thought this was still a matter of debate.”

It’s not far-fetched to say that within the pages of this alternate history with magical elements that we touch on the reasons 9/11 happened, for the colonizers always claim they’re going to save the “savages” from themselves but in reality want to control resources without respecting the rights of sovereign nations to make their own laws and govern their own lands. Consider, even the earliest Americans held two contradictory beliefs in their heads, for they opposed the British Empire’s unfair practices and presumption that they should dictate laws and taxes on American soil, but they accepted the colonization of America, the displacement of Indigenous persons. They believed in an earlier variation of what was later called manifest destiny, in their God-given right to rule the land and expand their influence.

Why should this book be required high school reading? It presents an unfiltered view of how harmful colonization is. It’s the view we never talked about in school. Colonization happened, white people ended up in X, Y, Z places, these things happened, here we are. But how many ever learned about how the racism behind classifications of Hutus and Tutsis that fueled conflict between these groups led to the Rwandan genocide.

How many kids learn in schools that the reason we don’t send troops to stop genocide in Rwanda but intervene for less in Afghanistan has to do with oil interests? That we’re still living in a world that governs foreign policy by financial benefit, and we’ll turn our backs on anyone if we won’t profit from our intervention? How many learn the truths highlighted in videos that peel back the layers and examine the dangers of colonization and how it’s affecting us now? How many understand why countries subjugated under British rule for centuries are fighting for reparations now? 

How nations still perpetuate harmful colonization practices today?

They say history is written by the victors. And that’s precisely why the history taught in school will never prevent future atrocities. It never addresses the root motives behind actions and the damage inflicted.

Babel does. Oh, yes, it’s fiction. It’s an alternate history. But its roots stem from an all-too-real world. The first time I visited the U.K., I was walking through Hyde Park and a man asked me where I was from. I answered, and his reply was, “Oh, the colonies.” How quaint. How patronizing. How very provincial and elitist of him. These attitudes linger today, they’ve formed the fabric of English society. And they spread beyond England to North America and other parts of the globe, feeding generations of people who believe they’re superior simply because they’re white.

Babel is a staggering reminder that we’ve made a bloody big mess of the world and have a responsibility to stop harmful patterns from continuing and clean our mess up. It’s a reminder that all too often, it’s the oppressed who take the stand, because they have nothing less to lose, or because those who should take responsibility won’t. 

For me, several factors contribute to my evaluation of a book, my decision that it rises above and should be declared a great work. Am I compelled to keep turning the pages? Yes, into the wee hours of the morning. Does it linger after the last page? I finished days ago and here I am, 1,300 words into a review that’s part essay, part rant, part impassioned plea for this book to get the attention that it so richly deserves.

Some books are pure entertainment, and we need them. Others endure, because they say something about the human condition, about society, about our past and our future, that must be acknowledged and not forgotten. Something that should prompt transformation. And this is a transformative work. It’s a book that should be a catalyst to a new age of understanding, about white privilege, about the power dynamics at play in global trade, about subjugation and oppression, about racism … even about real friendship, for there’s another essay about Letitia (Letty) Price that should be written. 

Some books tell great stories. Others have amazing characters. There are also books that have layers of wisdom infused throughout their pages. Babel has it all. And for that reason, this could easily be my top read of 2022. It’s a book that’s going to whisper its secrets to me for years to come, and I hope its whispers reach enough to fuel meaningful change in our world. 


Consumers needing content warnings are urged to check out Babel‘s page on Does the Dog die by clicking this link: Babel (Book, 2022) – DoesTheDogDie.com

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