Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

The empire’s still standing. Babel’s still there. The sun rises, and Britain’s still got her claws everywhere in the world, and silver keeps flowing in without end. None of this matters.

Page 218

I can only start this review by stating that Babel is truly the cleverest book I’ve ever read. I’ve seen this book pitched as ‘dark academia’ but this book is so much more. It would be impossible to reduce this book to a one line summary, but I’ll do my best to distill what makes it so special into hopefully something shorter than the book itself. Which, should in theory be easy when faced with this 500+ page behemoth, but is not as simple once you’ve read it.

Babel reads somewhat more like an academic essay than a fantasy novel at times, probing at academia’s seedy underbelly, the systemic institutionalised racism of the university system. Deeper than even that, it attacks colonialism, pushing you to rethink the history you’ve been told by white people.

To call Babel an ambitious undertaking would be an understatement to say the least. This book blends elements of the fantasy genre with historical fiction, whilst picking apart ethics, linguistics, translation, friendship, diaspora, colonialism and racism. It’s a dark and heavy read that will make you want to cry out in pain with its characters at times. It’s uncomfortable and probing, drawing a lot of parallels between Kuang’s 1800s Oxford and our current political landscape. I think this book will largely leave people with more questions than answers, and that’s part of the beauty. In her Tolkien lecture at Oxford University this year Kuang noted, ‘a novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness‘ and she certainly achieves that with Babel.

This book will not be for everyone. It’s heavy in academic stye choices, including the use of footnotes which I know can be divisive. As someone who already had a love of language, etymology and translation, I personally loved the academic tone, but if you’re going into this expecting your regular ‘dark academia’ fantasy novel, you may find this a little more heavy than you were expecting.

This is not a penny dreadful. Real life is messy, scary and uncertain.

Page 101

Despite the weight this book carries (in both content and physicality, this is not a short read), Babel is smattered with moments of levity, glimpses of hope in humanity, and love. The characterisations in this book are sublime, especially for our protagonist, Robin Swift, who evolves so completely and naturally throughout the course of the narrative. His feelings throughout the book are so real and visceral, you really feel his rage, despair and moments of joy so keenly.

It’s not just Robin’s character either, his cohort of fellow students have such distinct personalities, in fact even smaller side characters (shout out to the adorable Professor Chakravati here) are so well rounded it’s hard to believe they’re not real.

On cloudless nights especially, Oxford was transformed, its streets clear, its stores silent, its spires and turrets promising riddles and adventures and a world of abstraction in which one could get lost forever.

Page 257

Oxford is an easily romanticised city at the best of times, making it the perfect back drop for the rage of this novel to build and contrast against. The harsh truths of systemic racism uncovered in a place so coveted. Everything about this novel is constantly probing, pushing us to ask why, to look deeper. This book shatters the boundaries of dark academia, and its execution is flawless.

Babel is an epic undertaking you have no way to prepare for. Get ready for an incredible expose of academic culture, a linguistic masterpiece, the warm thrill of a found university family. And most importantly, a group of characters you will love fiercely, and cry deeply for.

Get the tissues out. Babel is out in the UK September 1st. Preorders here.

★★★★★, obviously.