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In the Old Testament, the story of The Tower of Babel is told: in reaction to the hubris of humankind, God spreads people across the world and muddles up their languages. The barriers to understanding thus become the penalty for humankind’s hubris. R. F. Kuang’s Babel takes place in a similar time of human arrogance: in 1836, Oxford – with its fictive Royal Institute for Translation, informally known as Babel – is at the centre of the British Empire. With the help of a fantastical twist, Kuang cleverly underscores the power of differences: because terms from two languages with similar (but not identical) meanings activate silver bars, which produce the effect of these untranslatable concepts, such as feelings, sounds, speed or even death.

Professor Lovell brings the orphan Robin Swift from Kanton, the capital city of the Chinese province Guangdong, to England and prepares him to study at Babel. There, he learns to master the power of the silver bars. From medicine to steam trains, all power is generated by them – which is why the Institute is also the centrepiece of British colonial endeavours. Robert Swift not only quickly becomes friends with other students of so-called “exotic” languages, he also soon understands the contradictory nature of his origins and his role. In this way, ambiguities between languages – ideas that do not travel, that cannot be translated – increasingly become an instrument of revolution.

In recent years, R. F. Kuang has gained international fame, such as through her Poppy Wars trilogy or Yellowface. And, Babel shows that this is justified: she succeeds in pointedly communicating grievances without coming across as lecturing or uptight. While Audre Lorde said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, Babel cleverly asks “how can we dismantle the master’s house with our own tools?” This question is appropriately answered in an obscure way: Revolutionary potential can be found somewhere between diversity, recognition, community, self-empowerment and scepticism. All of these concepts are equally as timeless as the concept of oppression itself – time-travelling ideas, so to say. As such, Babel remains topical and relevant, even when, through its classification as a historical fantasy novel, this does not initially seem to be the case.

Unfortunately, the explanation of the fictionalised world and its system of magic are somewhat clumsily omitted. Excessive conversations about linguistic principles, differences in translations and the meaning of language are carried through the first part of the novel in great length – yet simultaneously neglecting the elucidation of specific background information regarding the silver work. Consequently, the second half of the novel is even more eventful. The plot unfolds in an almost explosive manner. Although it may adequately portray the sequence of revolutionary events, it makes for a somewhat strenuous reading experience overall.

Nonetheless, Babel is a highly recommendable novel, captivating the reader with multi-dimensional characters, a riveting plot and ample material to make you think. It is suitable both for fans of the trending Romantasy genre, who want something dark and a bit of distance from love stories, as well as for belletristic fiction lovers who want to take a chance on a new genre. So far, Babel is difficult to compare with other (fantasy) novels, because it exposes the real world more than it changes it. Yet, precisely by doing so, R. F. Kuang has created a successful laudation to rebelliousness – based on the principle that things that cannot be equated are much more difficult to control.

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