Dark academia at its best. Babel by RF Kuang is a historical fantasy set at Oxford in the 1800s that will take you on a journey through language and time and leave you feeling both hopeful and drained at the same time. Read this Babel review (spoiler free), and decide if this is the next book for you.
*This post contains affiliate links*
Babel Review: Spoiler Free
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, is RF Kuang’s newest book. It releases on August 23, 2022, and is a highly anticipated release for pretty much everyone in the fantasy book community. The love for her debut series, The Poppy War, has ensured that Babel will be an instant hit.
Having gotten lucky enough to receive an eARC from Netgalley, I am so excited to bring you this Babel review, spoiler free of course! I want to break down all of the major beats and potential content warnings for you. Then you can decide for yourself if this is destined to be your next dark academia read. Personally, I loved this book and believe it will really please a lot of people. Though I am sure, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Is Babel a Standalone or a Series?
First and foremost, let’s answer the question, “Is Babel a standalone book?”“. The quick and easy answer to this is yes. Babel is a standalone book. Unlike her debut, Kuang released a standalone dark academia fantasy with a lot of historical fiction thrown in.
So don’t expect a series out of this one. It is one and done and nothing more is needed.
Babel: The Best Dark Academia Fantasy
Synopsis: Set in the late 1800s, we follow a young boy named Robin. Born to a Chinese mother with an unknown British father, he is taken away to London after the death of his entire family. He is raised to be a scholar, trained in languages and translation, and primed to attend the prestigious Oxford Translation School when he becomes of age. Once he is finally at Oxford, he finds that he still does not fit in. While he befriends the other small group of translators, to the British elite, he will always be “other”. It is during this time that he learns the true history of translation and magic and the colonization of the non-British world that threatens everything he holds dear.
Now that you know the rundown, let’s jump into the full review. First, we are going to talk about the plot of Babel.
While this is a rather character-driven story, in my opinion, it does have one of the most interesting plots that I have read in a long time. The book does start off a little slow. It builds everything up and crafts the world around the characters. It can feel like that first half takes longer than you expected, but the build-up is so worth the payoff at the end.
We learn about translation, history, the world, and how everything in this story molds the characters into the people they become. Kuang seems to be a master of building up to something, allowing the anticipation to swell, and then just releasing the floodgates at the right time.
Kuang crafts a dark and gritty world that is eerily similar to our own. She pulls directly from the history books once again and uses our own dark history to create the perfect setting for her dark academia masterpiece.
In this world, translation is the key to magic. Translation, and silver. The British are well on their way to colonizing the world and are using children from their conquered countries for their languages in order to fuel their magical economy.
Since Kuang attended Oxford, it shouldn’t be a surprise that her depictions of the campus are lush and stunning. We feel immersed in this academic setting, and she holds nothing back when it comes to the blatant racism and sexism present at Oxford and the country as a whole.
The world is dark and violent and unforgiving. It will make you uncomfortable (as it is meant to) when you see all of the real-life correlations to our own world.
Don’t go into Babel expecting it to be like The Poppy War. Where the Poppy War was adult-epic fantasy, Babel is part dark academia, part historical fiction, and a dash of fantasy. The “fantasy” elements are very minimal in this book. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a unique magic system.
As I mentioned earlier, translation is magic. More specifically, the meanings that are lost in translation fuel the magic through a conduit of silver. Not just anyone can perform the magic though. Words must be described and read by someone fluent in both languages in order to work. Not just passable, but able to think and dream in the language.
The magic is more akin to technology. It fuels advancements such as trains and telegraphs. These silver bars are used to cool homes, heal illnesses, and cook food. It can also be used for more nefarious means. Making people invisible for a time, making weapons more deadly, and even setting traps.
The world in Babel is completely reliant on this magical technology.
The Characters in Babel really made the whole experience for me. We follow a diverse group of characters and I love and hate each and every one of them.
Our main character, Robin, is my obvious favorite. Kuang herself describes him as “if Kitay from the Poppy War was the main character” and that felt so true. He is a boy torn from his world, thrust into a new one, and forced to learn to change everything about himself to try (and fail) to fit in. He is sympathetic, caring, and an all-around good person (mostly).
We also follow 3 other translators who become Robin’s friends. One Muslim-Indian boy, a French-Creole girl, and a British girl. All of them have their own unique struggles, advantages, and disadvantages.
Even the villains in this book were well done and fleshed out. They felt real, and their motivations ( while evil) made sense for the time and place.
Babel is not a fantasy romance. There is absolutely no real romance anywhere to be seen within this book, and I like it that way honestly. There is one very small “crush” but it is such a minimal thing and nothing really comes from it.
While there are no real romantic relationships, there are some fantastic friend and family relationships. We explore complex dynamics amount numerous different relationships. We have Robin’s relationship with his abusive and controlling guardian. The relationships between the main friend group of translators. Then we have the relationships between siblings, parents, friends, the government… This book really is all about relationships when you dive into it.
I loved that the friends weren’t perfect. In the group of 4 translators we follow, we really see how their friendship grows and changes, collapses, and rebuilds. It is all very realistic in the way that friendships are not always perfect sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes we hurt our friends and they hurt us.
I could go on and on about everything I loved about this book. That would spoil it though and take way too long. If you want my TLDR Babel review: Diverse angry nerds take on colonization and start a revolution!
This book was everything I wanted it to be. The bittersweet ending, the heartwrenching emotions it pulled out of me, and how it left me both satisfied and wanting more at the same time.