As soon as I saw the synopsis of this book, I knew I had to read it. It’s set mostly in an alternate-reality 19th-century England where the semantic “distortion” between pairs of words in different languages can be harnessed in bars of silver and put to use by translators. The idea is fabulous and the author fleshes it out wonderfully, creating a very believable world despite this fantastic element. (As a translator myself, I would only half-jokingly say that the most fantastic element in the book is that translators are highly respected and sought-after in Kuang’s alternate reality—I can’t really say the same for our reality.) This linguistic power is what keeps the British Empire running, and it’s a source of great riches and great suffering.
I was reminded of several other works while reading Babel, including Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (for its magical Oxford setting) and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (for its footnotes and general tone—and I’ve since read that Babel was intended in some ways to be a “tonal response” to that book), and while I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, I did get a bit of the “boy wizard” vibe off the Robin Swift, the main character here.
Babel is a “dark academia” thriller, but it is also (and perhaps primarily) an exploration of the power of language and rebellion, and a critique of empire and oppression. It does not take on this critique with a light hand, and this would be my main criticism of the book. Kuang hammers her points home with growing didacticism as the novel progresses, to extent that towards the end I found myself chafing at the feeling of being berated even though (or maybe because) I am fully on board with her arguments (racism=bad, colonization=bad, prejudice=bad). There were some moments of great and powerful subtlety in the book, and I wanted more of that and less lecturing. But then, maybe Kuang is right not to trust her audience to accept the evils of empire without repeatedly spelling them out in great detail. Modern-day Brexit Britain still clings to its fantasies of empire, after all.
My other main criticism relates to character development and motivation. The four main characters are sketched out in varying degrees of detail, but by the end they started to feel somewhat less like multifaceted individuals to me and more like one-dimensional representations of conflicting ideas. We are told what their motivations are (and we are told on multiple occasions that someone’s “throat pulsed” with emotion—a linguistic tic on the author’s part that honestly started to grate on me after the third or fourth time it appeared), but some of the characters seemed to become flatter as the book went on rather than more well-rounded. And while I was admittedly moved at the end of the book, almost despite myself, some (spoilery type) things did not sit entirely well with me. Maybe it’s a strength of the book that it provokes mixed responses—but I have the feeling that I was not supposed to feel conflicted about some of the things I felt conflicted about.
For whatever flaws it might have, Babel is a very ambitious and admirable work, and I would absolutely recommend it if you’re the mood for a nice bookish alternate history with a good dose of real history to boot.