Book Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

I love language. I studied linguistics in university, and have been obsessing over language construction and conlangs and words for most of my life. So I was very, very excited to read a mainstream speculative fiction book featuring language!

1. Thoughts on the plot

This book follows Robin Swift, a Cantonese boy who is adopted by Professor Richard Lovell and taken to Britain, where he is tutored in Chinese, Latin, Greek and English in the hopes that he will join Babel, the source of translation magic in Oxford, England. Over time, Robin makes friends with various other people who were adopted from their home countries and brought to Oxford. But such translation magic comes at a cost, and the reach of the British Empire may have finally pushed too far. 

The plot in this book, to be honest, is a bit slow. There are a few extremely dramatic bits at around the 3/4 mark, but most of the book is dominated by theme. That’s fine, really, as I have no problem with a book expounding on a specific theme. However, when it overpowers the plot and becomes a bit of a rambling exposition rather than a story, I get quickly bored.

2. Thoughts on the characters

I liked the characters. They managed to be very realistic, as both representations of students and people who manage to hold contradictions in their head. I really enjoyed reading about their interactions and their learning and the journey. I will say that at the end especially, they became very much like caricatures that were specifically written to fill a role in the thematic element of the story rather than people. 

3. Favourite part

The language. I adore language

4. Critique

I think I would have enjoyed this book a great deal more if the theme—against imperialism, racism, sexism…anything that diminishes the differences of people, really—weren’t so overwhelming. I have not a problem with any of these themes in the slightest. I think it’s very important to explore the concepts. But when the theme overpowers story and characters to where everything becomes nothing more than a representation of that theme, then it feels very much like I am being lectured at, and that is quite dull indeed.

Overall, I would say that Babel is a technically good book, with characters and prose that are exceptionally well crafted. But it leaves a sense of dissatisfaction.