By Jonathan Walker
It's not often an academic historian releases a fantasy novel that debuts at the top of The New York Times bestseller list, or for the same book to be quickly named one of the top fantasy books of 2022, but Rebecca Kuang's background makes her uniquely suited to author Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution. Chinese-American author Kuang immigrated to the United States from China at the age of four, and went on to receive graduate degrees from Cambridge and Oxford in Chinese Studies and Contemporary Chinese studies respectively. She now pursues a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature at Yale. Babel is dense, complex, and rich in detail, reflective of Kuang's background as an academic.
It must be said that this is not a fantasy book of escapism. This is no portal to a brand new world--it is a twisted reflection of our own, an alternate history of 1830s Great Britain. Like much of the best fantasy, Kuang uses the layer of fantasy to approach issues in our world with a slanted, amplified lens. In this case, magical silverworking lays the foundation for the historical conflict between Britain and China. Characters dissect ancient etymologies to command the silver, building the backbone of every part of Britain's imperialist empire.
Babel is a book of reckoning, featuring a main character whose background very much resembles Kuang's own. As disease ravages Canton, Robin Swift is swept away by Professor Richard Lovell to Great Britain, and Lovell prepares immigrant Robin to join the world of academia. It is this complicated heritage of Robin's that enables Kuang to revel in contradiction. She asks the reader to reconsider their place in the world, calling into question the culpability of the educated class in the issues they claim to be above. Half-Chinese Robin is enrolled in the great translation institute at Oxford--Kuang's alma mater--called Babel.
In his new position of privilege, Robin confronts his own culpability in the imperialist enterprise. He and his newfound friends--Ramy, brought to Britain from India; Victoire, a French girl with Haitian ancestry; and Letitia, the daughter of a British general--must make the choice to aid Babel's mission to strengthen Britain, or to side with their homelands and the anti-imperialist Hermes Society. If they face the world in all its gross complexity, they risk losing the lives they were given, but should they continue to serve the distasteful mission slowly destroying their heritage, their wealth will equal their ignorance.
Critics of Kuang's novel may bring forth concerns that Babel's message is too heavy-handed, that in the deep historical reflections and explorations of etymology, readers may become overwhelmed. There is another case to be made that the complexity of Kuang's writing makes Babel less accessible to a broad audience. I would argue, however, that Babel is the work that only R. F. Kuang could write. This is reality through the vessel of fantasy and fiction, and simplicity would be a sacrifice too great to do justice.
To readers hungry for history and fascinated by language, Babel is a gift I cannot recommend highly enough.