Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang. New York, NY : Harper Voyager, [2022].

Content Warnings: Racism, Colonization, Racial slurs, Slavery, War, Death of parent.

Babel is one of the best book club books I have ever read.  Set in an alternative version of 1800s Oxford where England’s technological revolution runs, not on standard technology, but on magic made with silver and translated language, the novel explores imperialism, linguistics, and what it means to be an outsider.

The book follows Robin Swift, a Chinese boy spirited away from his home in Canton by the mysterious British benefactor, Professor Lovell.  Lovell tells Robin that he has a glorious future ahead of him as a member of Oxford’s Translation Institute.  As one of the few people in Britain to grow up fluent in both Mandarin and English, Robin has the chance to make magic.  If he works hard, Robin may be able to find elusive match-pairs, words that, in translation between languages, have just enough difference in meaning between them to change the material world.

Soon enough, Robin finds himself immersed in the study of language.  Academics become his entire life.  The more he learns, however, the more Robin discovers that there is a dark side to The Translation Institute’s work.  While silver magic continues to make Britain richer and more powerful, it also funds conflict and poverty in China and the East Indies.  While Robin and his classmates are supposedly the heart of British progress, they also are taunted, beaten, and abused for existing in Britain while being non-white.  Students who do not measure up academically disappear or die without warning.  Behind the scenes, a secret society is plotting against The Institute and Robin is not sure if that is a bad thing.

R.F. Kuang is known for her character work in her hit series The Poppy War.  This same strength can be seen in Babel.  The book teleports readers to an alternative version of the past and into the heads of characters different from themselves while making those characters thoughts and internal logic make sense.  I may not have agreed with half of Robin’s choices, but I viscerally understood why he made them.

In Babel, Kuang also makes excellent use of footnotes.  The novel is marked with extra information given by a very opinionated narrator telling the reader more about quotations, history, and characters in the book.  Set within Babel’s lectures about languages and textbooks, this makes readers think about how we understand history and who we learn it from.

Babel, however, is not simply titled Babel.  The novel’s full title is Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution.  Readers should know that this is not a happy story.  Throughout its 560 pages, Babel repeats cycles of hurt and confusion as Robin becomes more cynical and hopeless about the state of the world.

This leads to the greatest flaw in the novel: The book focuses so much on Robin’s story of loss that it bypasses more complex and interesting ideas.  The narratives of amazing side characters are relegated to single chapters or footnotes while the novel’s imagery and foreshadowing becomes repetitive and heavy-handed.  The book ends with the conclusion of Robin’s story, but other plot points feel left at loose ends.

Babel by R.F. Kuang is a book for those looking to reminisce about academia, learn more about linguistics, or think seriously about the implications of imperialism.  I recommend it to those who liked the idea of The Poppy War, but could not stomach all three books of the trilogy or wanted something at least a little more hopeful.  The audiobook is particularly spectacular, capturing the voices and languages of all the characters from all over the world.  Love them or hate them, Babel contains characters that will stick with you forever and a haunting ending that will make you wonder if we are doomed to repeat history forever.

Rebecca Mincher is a library assistant in children’s services at the Graham Public Library. You can reach her at