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Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”

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I have mixed feelings about Babel, R.F. Kuang’s Locus Award-winning novel, which I will try to articulate below.

Writing (4.5/5): R.F. Kuang’s writing has improved significantly since The Poppy War trilogy. Her somewhat sloppy writing was the weakest part of that trilogy, especially in The Dragon Republic. Kuang has taken a huge leap forward with Babel, which has the feel of a modern classic. I especially love how naturally she interweaves etymological discourses throughout the main narrative thread. My only minor complaint is her overuse of footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes are used appropriately, e.g., to provide historical or linguistic context, but too often she uses footnotes as a crutch to explain her characters’ inner thoughts, which should be apparent from the main text.

Setting (5/5): R.F. Kuang has captured the “dark academia” setting better than any of the other prominent novelists in this genre. She has done a particularly masterful job of capturing the academic aspects of life at Oxford. Babel is, in my opinion, a much better representation of a dark academic setting than Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which unfortunately has provided the archetype of the dark academia genre despite its highly unrealistic depiction of life in academia.

Characters (3.5/5): Robin Swift and Professor Lovell are both masterfully drawn, multifaceted characters. Robin is a sympathetic character despite his increasing propensity for making bad decisions. Professor Lovell serves as an excellent villain, with just the right level of mystery. Robin’s circle of friends are somewhat less well developed but are still fairly compelling. The other characters are rather one-dimensional. I was especially annoyed by Griffin.

Plot and Pacing (3/5): This started off very strong. However, the plot suffers from uneven pacing, especially in the middle third of the book. The main problem is that the plot becomes increasingly unbelievable toward the end of the book. I couldn’t quite fathom some of the horrible decisions that the characters were making.

Magic System (1/5): This is the weakest part of Babel. Silver is magical because…it just is. In my opinion, this book would have been much better as historical fiction rather than fantasy. I found myself thrown out of the story every time magical silver made an appearance. I liked the novel best when it stayed in the realm of actual history.

Worldbuilding (1/5): Babel considers a British Empire that utilizes magical silver to strengthen its imperial ambitions. But this magic-enhanced British Empire is exactly the same as the real, historical British Empire. What, exactly, was the point here? Again, Babel would have been much better as historical fiction.

Themes (1.5/5): There is an annoying lack of subtlety here. Every English character is over-the-top racist, while the non-English characters somehow embody more enlightened 21st century views on the subject despite being in the 19th century. R.F. Kuang handled the complex subject of racism with a lot more nuance in the The Poppy War trilogy.

Overall Rating (3/5): Babel starts off strong and is beautifully written. However, the incorporation of magic and a lack of nuance took away from the experience. It’s a good book, but it falls short of the greatness that it could have achieved.

 

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