At its very core, Babel is a novel structured around semiotics: the study of the curious way that meaning is created. Babel asks some very engaging questions right from the get-go: how do words end up representing the ideas that they represent? How can language influence the way that a person perceives their world? What does it mean to lose something in translation? What is actually lost?
For regular readers, these are ideas that will likely prove to be endlessly intriguing. Rebecca Kuang sprinkles astonishing and enlightening footnotes throughout the book about etymologies and word evolutions and subtle differences in meaning like an enthusiastic storyteller who can’t help but throw in some side stories in between narrative beats because she knows they’re interesting – and yes, all of these light side trips are very interesting.
It can be argued that the concept and the theme of the novel surpasses its actual plot about imperialism, colonial exploitation, and student rebellion. Babel is set in a fantastic version of our world in the 1830s, where an industrial revolution is in full swing – not the one we know from history, but an industrial revolution of a more magical sort. In England, specially treated silver bars can make the impossible happen: carriages remain completely safe even at high speeds, coal can generate a disproportionate amount of energy when burned, and massive buildings can stand where their foundations cannot possibly hold their weight. In Babel’s world, the act of translation can lead to literal magic: two words in two different languages, inscribed on a silver bar, can cause all sorts of wondrous things to manifest, whether it’s a sound, a feeling, or a destructive force. Translators are the lifeblood of this society, and Robin Swift (born in China, raised in Britain) is training to become one of them.
Most of the story is set in Babel’s version of Oxford, and follows Robin and his classmates – a justifiably diverse and multicultural group of students at the Royal Academy of Translation – through their college years. Four-fifths of the book is this: learning the nuances of translation and silver working, forming bonds with schoolmates, negotiating exams, and coming to grips with the fact that it’s not easy being a young Chinese man in 1830s England. For Robin’s close circle of friends, it’s even worse: Ramy is dark-skinned, Letty is a woman, and Victoire is both.
Race and privilege are also the main themes of the novel alongside language and translation, as the four quickly realize that while Oxford is Oxford, it’s not the same Oxford for all of the students. Racial disparity is certainly not as interesting as magical translation, but only perhaps it’s the one thing in a fantastic setting that feels all too real.
Incidentally, the final fifth of the book is also all too real: this is where the status quo gets shaken up and violent things start happening. The complete title of the book is Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, after all. The novel never stops being clever and surprising, but things start getting compressed as the story starts cranking out the plot. The biggest flaw here is that the giant exposition dump seems to happen alongside the climax of the story. Even the epilogue leaks exposition all over the final few pages of the book.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are not particularly well-defined. The main characters are likable enough, but they’re also a bit bland and, ironically, homogenous. The narration repeatedly talks about how close Robin’s cohort is with each other, and how tight they are as a single unit, but the events as they unfold don’t really let the reader see this relationship much. It’s a shame that a lot of the characters are so thinly sketched out – some of the dramatic events in the final chapters lose a lot of weight because it’s kind of hard to care.
The plot is cohesive enough, but it doesn’t really stand out compared to the whole philosophy of translation-as-magic that the book describes so evocatively. If you like stories set in schools, this might do it for you. However, the best reason to read this book would be for the imaginative world-building, the fantastic intersection between translation and magic, and the deep dives into all sorts of language-related facts. Still highly recommended for voracious readers of the multi-lingual variety.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]