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Review: Babel

Updated: May 19

2/5 stars

Babel, by R.F. Kuang (2022)


Oh, gosh. I dunno, guys. Am I just too weirdly picky about books? Or does the hype get me too excited so the books themselves end up being a let-down? Whatever it is, I was so prepared to love this book. And I was so sure that I would that it honestly took me until probably 3/4 of the way through to admit that I didn't (and that's a lot of pages cuz this book is loooooong).


On the surface, Babel is totally up my alley. A group of students at Oxford University's "Royal Institute of Translation," aka Babel, are learning the intricacies of translating languages, and imbuing bars of silver with translated match-pair words to affect some kind of magical result (strengthening, making invisible, protecting, etc.). Britain relies on these students and the other professors and employees at Babel to do this work so that society continues to function, and the Empire continues to grow via colonization. This is the mid-1800's after all. The dilemma for Babel students is that most of them are from those colonized countries, so ultimately they must choose between their adopted country and profession, and their homelands.


I mean, what's not to like, right?! A little magic, a lot of etymology, and some commentary on colonialism and racism. And I really do think the magic system Kuang created is very inventive. The word match-pairs in two different languages that mean similar things, but different enough to create a magical reaction of some kind - cool. In particular, I liked the etymology lesson that came with each one.


But... so... While Kuang thoughtfully recreates industrial revolution-era Britain in the early 1800s, the fact that the world runs on magical silver doesn't change anything! There's nothing special or meaningful in the distinction besides the fact that "industry" has been replaced with "silver." There's basically no world-building, and while the match-paired silver bars are interesting, they don't have any palpable effect on the Babel world. So, while I thought it was creative and original, it ultimately didn't lead anywhere. Or matter. At all.


Similarly there wasn't much plot, so if you're looking for a book that starts at Point A and goes... anywhere beyond that? Not so much. The characters are one-dimensional, like they were all just stand-ins for specific ideas that Kuang wanted to embody, and almost everyone is either good and righteous (people from the colonies), or evil and ill-intentioned (white men from England). I saw no nuance or depth of character, nor was there nuance to the ideas themselves. Everything is simplistic and a little patronizing. Kuang has no faith in her readers to understand metaphors, the history of languages and their ever-changing nature, or colonialism and its racial implications. Basically, there was a whole lot of TELLING and not a lot of SHOWING, as evidenced by the sheer number of needlessly intrusive footnotes.



Very, very curious to see how my fellow book club members felt about it at our meeting in February. Sometimes those conversations make me appreciate certain aspects of a book more than when I just think about it on my own (though sometimes they also serve to point out bothersome things that I never even noticed, haha!).

 

UP NEXT: Arc of a Sythe series

Scythe, Thunderhead, & The Toll, by Neal Shusterman



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