By R.F. Kuang
I received an ARC of Babel from Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review.
Kuang’s follow-up to The Poppy War trilogy, Babel, is both like and unlike the series that catapulted her to fame: it chews on similar themes, and its characters occasionally evoke Rin and her companions, but its plot and setting bear only passing resemblances. The cruel countryside warfare of The Dragon Republic and The Burning God are exchanged for the academic opulence of an alternate history mid-1800s Oxford, at the heart of the British Empire. Babel is, in many ways, a more ambitious project than its predecessor—although smaller in scope, it strives for a higher bar of linguistic and structural sophistication, and it often falls short of those ambitions. But it’s nevertheless thrilling to watch Kuang again going for the throat of imperialism with a blunt-edged blade, and to witness the fire, blood, and shattered silver she leaves in her wake.
Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton, is brought by Professor Lovell to England, where he eventually enrolls in Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation, colloquially known as Babel. Within the hallowed halls of the tower of Babel, words are written on silver bars which capture the meaning lost in translation; that meaning then manifests as magic which powers the infrastructure of the Empire. (Gotta say—one of the coolest and most creative magic systems I’ve ever encountered.) Robin befriends fellow students Ramy, Letty, and Victoire, and they wrestle with their roles in maintaining the machinery of empire, which facilitates oppression while allowing them to live in comfort and have access to scones. This leads Robin to eventually join The Hermes Society, a shadowy organization devoted to opposing imperial expansion.
The protagonist of Babel and his three companions are the weakest part of the book. Kuang repeatedly tells us that Robin, Ramy, Letty, and Victoire are Very Good Friends™, but at no point did I register anything resembling real chemistry or camaraderie from their dynamics and interactions (a symptom of being told, rather than shown), and much of the emotional weight upon which this story hinges is lost as a result. Robin is too passive to be compelling, and Kuang makes the interesting-but-misguided choice to provide most of Ramy’s, Letty’s, and Victoire’s characterizations in brief interludes that function as narrative codas in the second half of the novel, presumably in an effort to deconstruct any assumptions you may have made about them prior to said interludes. It’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t pay off (except perhaps with Letty).
I was happy to discover, however, that Kuang’s prose—which improved significantly over the course of The Poppy War trilogy—has continued to get better. Her sentences are richer and more syntactically robust, remaining eminently readable even as they digress into lengthy meditations on etymology. Babel’s pacing is another matter. The middle section of the book sags and likely would have benefitted from a more rigid structure in relation to the time it covers; I sometimes felt like Mario, cape inflated, sailing over a level in Super Mario World, which is simultaneously convenient and disappointing. Was there anything interesting down there? Did I miss Yoshi?
Kuang is at her strongest when it comes to theme. If The Poppy War and its sequels frustrated you with their lack of nuance and subtlety (I count myself among those readers, although I have softened somewhat in this respect in response to Kuang’s defense of her didacticism), you won’t find anything different here. But as the vice tightens, the story skews ever closer to that of The Poppy War trilogy—Kuang finally finds her footing and delivers a thrilling finale that made me genuinely uncomfortable. This finale brings the alternate history and speculative worldbuilding elements of Babel into focus, and it is here where I feel most conflicted about Kuang’s choices.
Babel’s silver bars distill the oppression of empire into physical objects. I believe I understand why Kuang found this idea attractive. Imperialism and colonization are systems so immense that they resist the mechanics of storytelling and refuse to be dismantled by four characters in a few hundred pages; Kuang needed a way for her protagonists to physically interact with the engine of empire. I don’t have a problem with this. Speculative fiction has a long history of literalizing and making microcosms of ideas that feel impossible to wrap your mind around in the real world—that’s precisely what provides the genre with the transformative power of perspective. What I do have a problem with is her willingness to introduce a magic system into our own history without meaningfully changing the trajectory of that history. It is nothing more than a coat of paint, and that is neither plausible nor compelling. I crave a lot more “alt” in my alternate histories.
Babel is unapologetically Kuang, for better and for worse. It is big and bold and dense; it is drunk on righteous anger; it is an uncompromising academic flex complete with footnotes that rarely justify their inclusion. It does not exhibit the staggering scorched earth storytelling that made The Poppy War trilogy so memorable, and I confess it did not live up to the high hopes I had after that series. But Babel still does what most books don’t—it goes for the throat, and that’s good enough to keep me ready, eager, and waiting for Kuang to strike again.
Review by Erin Larson