Arts book review

Translation, colonialism, and nothing happening: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang

Babel is heavy on history and light on plot, characters, and everything else.

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang
Harper Voyager
August 23, 2022

I read R. F. Kuang’s first novel, The Poppy War, an epic fantasy novel inspired by mid-1900s China in high school, and to this day it remains one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. That book, and the trilogy it kicks off, is an excellent blend of violence, psychopathy, and East Asian-inspired fantasy worldbuilding. Unfortunately, Kuang’s subsequent projects have largely underwhelmed me: 2023’s Yellow Face devolved from its promising premise into a cartoonish farce reminiscent of a Scooby Doo episode, and Babel only faintly echoes the strongest aspects of The Poppy War while delivering absolutely nothing interesting by way of characterization or plot. Kuang’s writing is fluid and at times quite funny, but I can only take so many multi-month time skips in a novel before I start to question whether there’s even any meaningful story in the works. 

Babel is a historical fantasy novel that follows a Chinese boy, Robin Swift, who’s plucked from the slums of Canton in 1828 by Oxford professor Richard Lovell to prepare for eventual study at the fictional Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, otherwise known as Babel. Scholars at Babel pursue silver-working, creating magic silver bars that rely on the details of translation to generate what are essentially spells used throughout the British Empire and across the globe in support of British colonialism. At Babel, Robin learns more about the true purpose of the Institute and the silver bars, and when the British start to agitate for war against China, he must decide where he stands on Babel and its role in colonization. 

The main issue with Babel is the pacing (or the complete lack of it). The first 300 pages are a slog of stops and starts after our main character Robin gets to Oxford: something exciting happens, e.g. a visit from the anti-colonialist secret Hermes Society, and then nothing comes of it — Robin just goes back to studying. Whole months are glossed over in the span of a paragraph, while the relationship between Robin and three other students — Ramy, Letty, and Victoire — lies dead on the page despite the author’s efforts to constantly remind us how close the quartet has become. By the time things truly start to pick up, around the 400-page mark, you’re left wondering why Robin was chosen as the main character when nothing happens to him and he does nothing himself, and why the story started where it did, when it might have started closer to the action and filled us in on the relevant background over time. Many chapters begin with a sentence that is effectively “Nothing happened for several months” and then continue with Kuang explaining all of the nothing that happened over those several months. You can imagine this would start getting a bit mind-numbing after a few hours of reading. 

What does Kuang fill all those pages with, then, if nothing happens plot-wise? A lot of worldbuilding. Kuang has clearly done her research, which is a strong suit of hers, and it shows in the historical details that litter Babel. The magic system, which draws its power from what is lost in translation between words in different languages, is also interesting and Kuang spends a lot of time laying out the linguistic concepts that underlie it. Unfortunately, when there’s no plot accompanying the release of all this knowledge, what results is something that resembles more of a textbook than a story. Whole paragraphs seem as though they could’ve been lifted straight out of an assigned reading for a history class. Accompanying all this is the inclusion of footnotes, which are just an opportunity for Kuang to inject more historical or linguistic facts into the book, and felt mostly bizarre given that there’s nothing about the format of the novel that would warrant the stylistic use of footnotes, besides perhaps the academic premise. And despite the potential of a linguistic magic system, there isn’t much more to the silver bars beyond the basic principles that are first introduced. Kuang seems more interested in examining the real-life translation knowledge that underlies the system and discussing the reasons her characters use the silver bars than in creating the kind of great, multidimensional fantasy magic system that can sometimes feel like a character on its own. 

Kuang also spends a lot of word count making her characters argue about colonialism. I personally agree with the main thematic messages of the work. But I felt that Kuang was trying to hammer those messages into me like I was a bad student, and the verbal clashes the characters engage in frequently come at the expense of actual characterization. I left Babel with the impression that the characters had merely been props for Kuang to use to get an ideological message across. Robin, his friends, and all of the accompanying side characters felt muted and barely individuated. We also don’t make any meaningful journeys into the psychological impacts of colonialism on the individual beyond the effects that anyone who is non-white in a Western country wouldn’t already know. Character psychology was the weakest aspect of The Poppy War, yet the psychology in that novel was still much stronger than what Kuang offers here. Robin and his friends are also supposed to have some sort of entangled love-hate bond with each other emblematic of the dark academia vibe, but that doesn’t exist beyond the barest of hints that are never taken through their full course. Worst still, significant people die in Babel, and I don’t care. 

Babel is most exciting at the beginning, when Robin is growing up with Professor Lovell, and at the end, when the plot finally picks up the pace and we get meaningful action. These are the places where the specter of The Poppy War rears its head for me — these sections resemble major plot points of Kuang’s first novel, and I just can’t help but think that she did it better there. The most exciting parts of Babel offer only a fraction of the high-octane chaos that The Poppy War gives and there’s unfortunately not enough happening on the psychological level in Babel to justify that lack of external plot.  

Kuang’s writing on the sentence level is still strong. She’s funny in the right places, she describes people and places with sufficient visual detail, and her vocabulary is gigantic. But it’s not enough to make up for a meandering mess of a book that works better as a writer’s worldbuilding reference than a story in its own right that leaves the reader wondering how 500 pages can be full of so much nothing. For those new to this author, skip Babel and read her debut.