I’m taking part in both the RIP XVII challenge (1 September – 31 October) and Spooktastic Reads (19 October – 31 October) this year. Both focus on reading darker books, but Spooktastic Reads has more of a focus on dark fantasy, which makes RF Kuang’s Babel a perfect pick. (The publishers have even worked with these challenges’ colour schemes!)
Babel is set in Oxford in the late 1830s: industrialisation is picking up pace, despite Luddite protests, the Whigs are in power under Lord Melbourne, and we’re on the brink of the Opium Wars. Kuang, however, diverges from history by devising an ingenious mechanism that powers colonial exploitation: silver-working. In short, elite Oxford academics, working in the Royal Institute of Translation – Babel – inscribe ‘match-pairs’, or two different translations of the same word, into silver bars. The subtle differences between the meanings of the words produce their intended effects. In this way, Babel becomes the hub of the British Empire, with its silver-magic allowing the British to dominate the rest of the world even as extractive knowledge of foreign languages is the essential mechanism that keeps imperialism going. Our four protagonists enter Babel as undergraduate students on generous stipends. Robin, the central narrator, is originally from Canton but was brought over to England by his absent father after his mother’s death; his best friend Ramy, a practising Muslim, is from Calcutta; Victoire was born in Haiti; and Letty is a white English aristocrat who is nevertheless enraged by how her brother’s access to education was facilitated while she was ignored.
Babel is clearly in conversation with earlier novels that deal with language, academia, magic and injustice – but sadly, it seems more interested in toppling the obvious targets of Harry Potter and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind than engaging with more intelligent predecessors like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Robin and his friends may not be the Trio, but they are definitely the Marauders – with all the moral simplicity that that entails. (One pivotal moment even directly recalls Sirius Black’s outburst, directed at Peter Pettigrew: ‘Then you should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!‘*) Robin goes on a relatively interesting journey, but the other three remain ciphers, ultimately defined by race and gender rather than developing real personalities; we know that Victoire’s world-view is smarter than Ramy’s is smarter than Letty’s because that’s what hierarchies of oppression tell us. And while I am ALL FOR authors showing how the lived experience of discrimination allows oppressed groups to have a better understanding of an oppressive system, this is not handled with any subtlety.
*yes maybe I did just quote that from memory
This brilliant Goodreads review sums up Babel‘s worldbuilding problems far better than I can, so I won’t add much here: in short, the addition of silver-working bizarrely does absolutely nothing to change early nineteenth-century British history, and the language used by our anti-colonial protagonists all too frequently hails from the twenty-first century, which feels especially jarring in a novel so attuned to the histories of words. Having said that, though, I could probably have put up with these problems if the points that Kuang was making weren’t quite so obvious. I still haven’t posted my review of her forthcoming contemporary novel Yellowface because it’s not out until May 2023: still, I was struck by how two such different novels can suffer from the same kinds of problems. Yellowface, too, is determined to spell out everything to the reader rather than let them draw their own conclusions. I’ve heard that Kuang was frustrated when readers missed that her earlier Poppy War trilogy was a critique of colonialism in China and Hong Kong; I’ve not read this trilogy, but I very much sympathise if this is true. However, I don’t think this means that you should write to the lowest common denominator of readers, especially when surely anyone who picks up Babel knows what they are getting into.
While reading Babel, I kept on thinking of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, which stand as some of the most morally complex fantasy/dark academia novels I have read in recent years. Novik is much more interested than Kuang in understanding how people become complicit in corrupt systems, and she’s willing to take her protagonist, El, to some very dark places as she walks her own path towards resistance. The final hundred pages of Babel do go some way towards acknowledging knotty problems that were not visible in the previous four hundred or so. I loved the emergence of radical working-class groups as key allies, and how they exposed some of the holes in our protagonists’ thinking, especially the idea that machine-breakers were just dumb peasants impeding progress #JusticeforLuddites. Finally, we get some serious disagreements over tactics from people who are all on the right side of history. And, as somebody who has never studied at Oxford but worked there unhappily for three years, I did revel in the sheer destruction that the novel’s climax brings; Kuang is great at really bringing home to the reader how quickly systems of power unravel when labour is withdrawn. (Yet, I return to the comparison with the Scholomance series, which is much better at portraying the sheer difficulty of resistance, even after the school itself is expelled into the void; most exploited peoples don’t conveniently have their labour locked into a single place that they can blow up).
OK this got LONG, but to conclude: if you want thoughtful, thought-provoking dark academia, read Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education; if you instead want a dissection of the inherent colonialism within the modern university, read Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation. (And yeah, if you do just want a fast-paced, old-fashioned wizard school fantasy book, still read Babel.)