I’m not as smart as R.F. Kuang, but I love reading her books. Even after I finish reading, I can’t stop thinking about the story. Be careful, there are spoilers ahead!

In 1828, Robin Swift, a boy who lost his parents to cholera in Canton, is taken to London by the enigmatic Professor Lovell. He spends years learning Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese, all to prepare for his admission to the esteemed Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, also known as Babel.

Babel is a global hub for translation for silver-working. This is the craft of using enchanted silver bars to reveal the meaning that gets lost in translation, creating magic. This skill has made the British Empire incredibly powerful, and the research of Babel in foreign languages aids the Empire’s aim to conquer everything it comes across.

For Robin, Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is like a fairytale; a perfect place devoted to the knowledge. But knowledge give power, and for a Chinese boy, Robin, brought up in Britain, working for Babel inevitably means betraying his homeland.

“Babel” is a book that responds to the themes in “The Secret History” and the tone of “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”. It explores student protests, opposition to colonial power, and how translation is used as a tool by the empire

My thoughts

Writing this review without revealing too much is tough, but I’ll give it a go. This book is so detailed and intricate that it needs your complete focus and thoughtful consideration. It’s best to read it yourself and form your own view.

“Babel” is a mix of two stories. The first one follows Robin Swift, a young student who gets the chance to study at Oxford, a famous school that has taught some of the world’s smartest people. We follow Robin from his early days in China through his time at Oxford and the events that happen there. The world of Babel is so beautifully portrayed that it truly gives you the feel of academia.

I could easily imagine myself in a gown, rushing across campus to get to class, spending rainy days in the library studying books and theories. I felt like I was sitting with Letty, Ramy, and Victoire, eating scones and discussing the points of translation. The focus of this book is on translation was my favorite part.

Kuang does a great job of exploring language, its translation, and the magic that translation can create. She also highlights the economic and political importance of translation.

I found this aspect fascinating. Language and its origins are such interesting subjects, and seeing them explored here in such depth was exciting. The research into various languages shows how deeply language is connected to culture and people.

This book is more of an alternate history than a fantasy, but the story is still brilliantly crafted. Kuang is a master at world-building, and her descriptions allow you to immerse yourself in this world. She creates an idealized version of student life that readers will fall in love with, but she also provides a heavy dose of reality.

What other books has R.F. Kuang written?

R.F. Kuang is a renowned author known for her work in the fantasy genre. Here are some of her notable works:

  • The Poppy War (2018)
  • Babel, or the Necessity of Violence (2022)
  • Yellowface (2023)
  • The Dragon Republic (2019)
  • The Burning God (2020)


What is the book “Babel” about?

“Babel” is a story about a boy named Robin Swift who is taken from Canton to London after losing his parents. He is trained in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese to prepare for his admission to the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, also known as Babel. 

Who are the main characters in “Babel”?

The main character is Robin Swift, a Chinese boy raised in Britain. Other important characters include Ramy from Calcutta, Victoire from Haiti, and Letty, a white British admiral’s daughter.

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