R. F. Kuang
Babel Cover

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution


It was the best of novels, it was the worst of novels... a sophomoric Charles Dickens pens HARRY POTTER AND THE SILVER TOWER OF TRANSLATION.

The pros:

-The prose: Kuang has a nice flow to her writing that feels like a decent attempt at Dickens or Swift, two authors who she isn't shy about aggrandizing. Unfortunately, it's a case of diminishing returns, as the writing quality decreases the further along you read.
-The language: There is a ton of scholarly content when it comes to languages, maybe too much.
-The setting: This Oxford alumni author walks you all around the campus and surrounding town, and obviously knows the area like the back of her hand.
-The morals: This book advocates against racism, sexism and xenophobia through the painful experiences of its characters. It can be preachy and condescending in places, but not enough to overshadow the noble intent.

The cons:

-The word count: This work is way, WAY too lengthy. It could've used a major editing overhaul. Nearly 550 pages, and crammed with hundreds of tiny footnotes, BABEL could easily have been compressed into a novella, or even a short story to better affect.
-The coincidences: Far too many convenient happenings to move the plot along. The line between plausible and ridiculous is crossed many times and with increasing frequency towards the end.
-The Plot holes: It's as though Kuang had a heap of ideas that she'd resolved to include at all cost, but was unable to fluidly connect the dots.
-The magic system: It's a bit droll to say the least, centering around magical bars of silver. Speak the inscribed word on each side of a silver bar and poof, your hat has a rabbit in it. It's also inconsistent. Towards the end of the book, so many exceptions and embellishments have been added that it becomes an eye-rolling joke.
-The déjà vu: Kuang "borrows" far too liberally from a certain other author's coming-of-age, school of magic series, *cough*(J.K. Rowling)*cough*.
-The Epigraphs: Lazy and unimaginative selections that add to the word count rather than the reading experience of the chapters that they introduce.
-The footnotes: There is poor and inconsistent use of footnotes throughout. The majority are simply part of the story (this character reacted this way and that character reacted that way). Readers are forced to go back and forth between them and the main text, making an already too long read even longer.

The Verdict:

This book is not great. The characters all feel fake and forced like woke marketing schemes that put up the appearance of being alert to racial prejudice and injustice in order to sell you products that slowly kill you. Overall, BABEL is brief passages of brilliance entombed in a mountain of tedious boredom, overhyped by big money publishing and riding the popularity wave of THE POPPY WARS series, this is a very disappointing inclusion in the 2022 Nebula Award nominee short list, getting the all-too-common SFWA clique nod; however, if you enjoy historical fiction dealing heavily with translation, and are having trouble falling asleep, then I recommend taking the time to read it.