An Arcane Bestseller

Babel: An Arcane History

By R.F. Kuang

Throughout the book, Robin and his friends reiterate their love for flaky, delicious English pastries. Among Robin and Remy’s favorites are scones– Robin liked his plain, but Remy preferred his with clotted cream. Decide whose team you are on by making scones with clotted cream, courtesy of this recipe from Tori Avey.

Unlike most people, I love a good page pusher. I also do not mind subtitles or heavy, academic reading. In fact, these are often my favorite books when they are coupled with a fantastic plot line.

All of this is to say that I should love R.F. Kuang’s book, Babel: An Arcane History. In fact, I was the one who suggested it to my book club. I ended up being the only person who disliked it, so be prepared for what might be an unpopular opinion.

Babel is a retelling of the First Opium War through the eyes of Robin, a Chinese boy who is taken on as a ward by an English professor after his family dies of Asiatic cholera. Because this is a historical fantasy, silver working plays a large role in the plot. When Professor Richard Lovell finds Robin sick in a home full of dead relatives, he places a silver bar on him and heals him. Then, he proceeds to transport Robin back to England to begin intensive academic training in languages. Robin learns Green and Latin while also working with a tutor to maintain his Mandarin. After a number of years, Professor Lovell finally deems Robin ready for the next stage of his life: Entrance into Oxford’s Translation Academy, colloquially known as Babel.

Once Robin enters Babel, he quickly meets other wards much like himself. His roommate, Remy, is Indian. Victoire is Haitian, and her roommate, Letty, is White and privileged. They have each been taken on as wards and given a free Oxford education in order to capitalize on their native language skills. While Babel’s purpose is to act as the language epicenter of the world, its real mission is to make money for colonial England. This is where silver working comes in. By writing a word in two different languages on a silver bar, the bar takes on the power to produce what is lost in translation. These bars become the lynchpin to modern society, performing functions that modern technologies cannot accomplish. The colonizers have become very wealthy from selling these bars all over the world.

Remy, Robin, and Victoire all recognize that their fellow countrymen are being exploited by England. The colonizers treat their homelands with utter disdain and disrespect, refusing to acknowledge basic human rights. However, there is one organization that is secretly fighting the way in which England is using silver working in order to exploit other countries from around the world. When Robin accidentally encounters them, his life and his future change forever. Will he choose the comforts of his life at Oxford, or seek a revolution?

Babel is well-researched and extremely detailed. There is no question that the author has an academic background and brought her passion and ferocity for the history of languages into this book. However, Babel is less of a novel and more of a lengthy manifesto. You get the sense that the author does not want readers to reach their own conclusions, but instead argues down every point so that it is only acceptable to take one position. These constant arguments make Babel LONG…..much longer than it needs to be. The same positions are stated over, and over, and over, and over again. Furthermore, since it is only acceptable to take one position, the characters end up being very one-dimensional. The three non-white characters agree on almost every dimension, and the white girl is their antithesis. It is Us vs. Them to the extreme. The only character who really changes throughout the book is Robin, but his transformation is rather sudden and non-sensical. I can’t explain this point further without including spoilers, but it’s like someone snapped their fingers and Robin’s entire personality changed. Plus, it serves only to put him even MORE in line with his fellow cohorts, not to allow him to grow and change.

Page pushers are great, but not when the length only serves to tell readers what to think. The Opium Wars and colonialism featured great evils– full stop. But, it very much felt like these horrors were written from only one perspective using a modern lens, and the reader was not allowed to disagree with the conclusions that Kuang has drawn. Furthermore, Babel felt like a 300-page book stretched into a 500-page book. Not only did I lose interest in the plot, but I ended up disliking every single character by the end. As a political moderate who is proudly not registered with either of the U.S.’s two major political parties, I find this book hard to enjoy unless you are willing to acquiesce to all talking points on the very progressive side of the political spectrum. A little nuance would have gone a long way.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️

My Rating System Explained

5 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️:  This was an amazing book, and I can't stop thinking about it.   It impacted me emotionally or changed my perspective.  My thoughts keep flickering back to it at random times throughout the day.  I will absolutely recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs.

4 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️:  This was a really good book.  Parts of it stuck with me, and I might mention it in a conversation.  There is a high likelihood that I will recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs.

3 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️:  I liked this book.  It allowed me to escape from reality for a while.  While I might tell somebody about it if I think it will interest them, I will probably not suggest it to one of my book clubs.

2 Stars ⭐️⭐️:  There's something about this book that I didn't like.  I wasn't willing to go all the way down to a one-star rating, but I'm definitely not digging it.  I may recognize that this book is not for me, but it might be for other people.  I will not recommend it to my friends or one of my book clubs.

1 Star ⭐️:  My rarest rating.  I really didn't like this book.  Something in the story line upset me, and I probably "hate-read" the majority of the book.  Not only will I not recommend it, but I will actively tell people that I did not like it.

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