Book – Babel

Author – RF Kuang

Pages – 546

Year – 2022

Genre – Fantasy

Bought for me by Alex

Babel is set in an alternate history, one where magic created by pairing together words of different languages is used on bars of silver to power everything. From making trading ships move faster across the water, to improving the smell of the roses in the gardens of rich men, silver has its influence right across the country, and indeed the world. We follow Robin, a young man plucked from destitution in his native Canton, and brought to Oxford by a leading professor in the workings of silver. We follow as he learns his trade in the widely respected Tower of Babel, all the while struggling with his conscience as he realises that this powerful tool is utilised in order to keep the powerful British Empire on top and repress the people of countries such as his own.

RF Kuang is an incredibly intelligent lady with several language degrees to her name. This book makes good use of these skills, but I cannot say that this forms one of the more interesting parts of her writing. There are large passages within this book dedicated to explanations of etymology, giving the whole thing a bit of a feel of a text book. In themselves, a lot of these descriptions are fairly interesting, but unfortunately, their prevalence really slows the novel down. It is a shame, as outside of this, Kuang’s writing style is very good, but having the narrative and character development disrupted by academia makes it difficult to read at points.

This is most certainly a book with a specific viewpoint as well. The themes of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism are starkly evident throughout. Whilst I personally fully agree with Kuang’s stance on these, there is a certain sense that she really does not want to let you get away with not thinking about them at any point. Even whilst agreeing with these sentiments, it became somewhat galling to be repeatedly bashed over the head with them at each turn. Some more subtlety would probably have served well.

What we are left with is a bit of a contradiction of a book. Well written in parts, but hugely overwritten in others. Interesting characters who are not allowed the space to breathe. And a story that has some real plus points without the flow to allow it to be fully enjoyed. Ultimately, a book that I am glad I read, but will not linger for me. And also at nearly 550 pages, far too long for what it needed to do.