Babel by RF Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager on August 23, 2022
my rating: 2 stars
Goodreads avg: 4.45 (as of 2022-10-16)
Clearly I am in the minority here, but this book just did not do it for me. The story follows Robin Swift, a boy who is orphaned by cholera and taken from China by a mysterious professor, who trains him in languages. Eventually Robin is enrolled in Oxford to learn translation — in this world translations power the magical bars of silver that ease life for the wealthy. I appreciated the messages here about how colonialism consists of violence and theft, and how colonizers devalue the cultures that they steal from even as they rely upon them. I just had a lot of issues with the way the story itself was told.
In order to focus on translation, Kuang creates an alternate version of our own world with silver-working at its center. I took issue in part with the fact that Kuang does very little with silver-working itself. It’s used to create inventions that… would already have been invented anyway, as we see in our own world. It’s bizarre to me that Kuang would create an entire alternate reality only to make it almost exactly like our own. The changes made to life itself are minute and don’t reflect, to me, what reality would be like if we did have this magical technology at our hands.
It also read to me as rather YA. The characters are technically adults but have the demeanor of teenagers and seem quite naive at times. A lot of the messages are in your face and there are often long monologues where characters lecture in order to tell us what we should be getting out of the book. There are some abrupt shifts in character that don’t make sense to me and there is a large plot point that I don’t even think should have occurred, but the entire end of the story relies upon its happening.
It felt to me like Kuang had a message she wanted to relay and wrote the whole book around that. I didn’t feel compelled by the story or the characters because they felt like nothing more than a mouthpiece. A lot of “and they studied, and they studied, and they studied some more” could have been cut from this to make the pacing a little more smooth. As is, it drags the reader through the first two-thirds and then sprints along to the ending. I’m honestly glad so many liked this, but I really fail to see the appeal of the story itself.