From the award-winning author of The Poppy War trilogy, R.F. Kuang brings her readers a new historical take on early nineteenth-century England with Babel. Taking place mainly at the Oxford University, Babel is a dark academia fantasy that follows Robin Swift, an orphan from China who gets taken to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. While in London, Robin intensively trains in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese all in preparation so he can enter the ominous, but prestigious tower of Babel at the Oxford University.
Babel is the world’s monopolistic trade center for translation and more importantly, magic. At Babel, Robin finds himself learning the inner mechanisms of silver working and how their magical enchantment works for those who are fluent in various languages. To him Babel is not only a utopia of magical knowledge, but also a place of belonging, that is until he runs into the even more mysterious secret society of Hermes, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial colonialism.
When Robin uncovers a menacing plan that England plans to start a war with China over opium and silver, he is faced with the hardest decision on whether he should involve himself. If so, can a revolution yield results through peace or is violence necessary to bring change to the world?
Babel is an experimental homage to the dark academia genre, but as a fantasy it falls short. Touted as an adult fantasy novel is a betrayal to some reader’s expectations. Magical realism in historical fiction is a more accurate description of Babel; despite the descriptions about magic, it serves more of an allegory to the scientific discovery and other developments that led to the groundwork for the technological advances of the 20th century in this fictional 19th century England. Pacing is also an issue causing readers to spend at least 50% stuck in what seems to be a textbook explaining how etymology, the study of the origins of language, is magic. Readers are continuously only told how events happen and never shown, and even when there are scenes significant to the horridly slow-paced plot, they happen over the course of two pages and are easily forgotten.
The plot is also continuously bogged down with underdeveloped characters and lack of actual world-building. Readers only follow Robin’s storyline and anyone else introduced in the book are simply side characters, including the mysterious Hermes Society. There are footnotes that mention how there’s more to the backgrounds of these side characters and society, but Kuang only gives a few pages dedicated to these characters which aren’t enough for readers to truly feel connected to them. Robin’s own journey is also mainly focused on his academic life, and none of it was particularly interesting. The book simply follows his four years at the Oxford University with Robin waking up, having tea, studying at Babel, learning more about etymology, maybe encountering another student of zero significance, and stealing research and enchanted silver bars for the Hermes Society. This goes on for approximately 75% of the book up until he takes a life-changing trip back to his home country of China, where certain events lead him to plan and execute an extremely plot-hole filled revolution back at the University.
Kuang’s saving grace with Robin is that his struggles with diaspora were expertly handled. Themes of racism were also well done along with the historical aspects that Kuang utilizes throughout the book. If there’s anything Kuang is a master at, it’s her fictional twists and takes on actual historical events. It’s easy to tell that a lot of research, passion, and speculative thought was put into this book. It’s just unfortunate that not everything lived up to what it promised to be, but for some, it may be the dark academia they have been looking for.