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  • Writer's pictureTabitha Tomala

Babel by R.F. Kuang Book Review

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Book cover for Babel by R.F. Kuang
Babel by R.F. Kuang

Book Review for Babel

When Professor Lovell finds Robin sick with Cholera, waiting for the illness to take him as it has his entire family, he hands Robin a silver bar. Once the words engraved on it are spoken, Robin finds his body healing. Whisked away from his home in Canton, Robin is placed in the Professor's home and begins studying a variety of languages. And Robin soon learns the roof over his head and food in his belly comes at a price. He has no choice but to excel in his studies. And as he joins Oxford University's translation program, that price will rise even higher.

The first half of Babel lays down the foundations of the world and political ideologies. The British Empire views foreigners as nothing more than tools to be used. Enlisting those with the ability to dream in their native language to extort their abilities at silver working. But the students of Oxford University’s translation program chosen to do silver working must study various languages for years. And while they are given a roof over their head, and money in their pockets, it is nothing short of extortion. If they do not live up to the University’s needs, all the pleasantries will be taken away.

The history and language development took over half of the book to solidify. For readers who enjoy in-depth and detailed worldbuilding, Babel will be the perfect read for you. However, for those who prefer to see an even mix of character development alongside world-building, this will not be an easy read. Once the foundations are laid down, events escalate rather quickly and the pacing takes off. Yet there is a marked point where it once again falls away as the characters settle on a slower path of choices leading to the end of the novel. This uneven pacing almost left Babel as a DNF.

However, the silver working itself was fascinating. Students of Babel are able to match word pairs and engrave them onto silver bars to enable magical effects. Depending on the pair, the bars can be used to make a carriage go faster, make someone turn invisible, or be weaponized. The possibilities are endless. But it requires the engraver to have a wealth of knowledge of languages. Given this detail, it makes sense for the beginning of the novel to focus so heavily on languages. Yet, there is only a brief time spent on silver working and the bars do not fully come into play until near the end of the story. Had the silver working been more active in the story and more time spent on the students working with silver, the story may have been more entertaining.

Babel is a book for those who enjoy historical fiction. Do not approach this book expecting it to be filled with fantastical elements. If the creation of languages and root words fascinates you, this will be a wonderful read. But for those who prefer more magic and fantasy, you may want to pass on this one.

To Purchase: Bookshop | Author's Website

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1 Comment

A.S. Akkalon
A.S. Akkalon
Aug 03, 2023

I enjoyed Babel, particularly the focus on languages, which I adore. However, I agree with your take that the worldbuilding and ideas in the story were stronger than the story itself.

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