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Babel : or the necessity of violence : an arcane history of the Oxford Translators' Revolution
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Trade Reviews
Library Journal Review
Kuang (The Burning God) is no stranger to tackling difficult topics. Her latest is set at a time of immense change and turmoil in a reimagined 1800s Britain. It tells the story of the Industrial Revolution and colonialism from the perspective of Robin, an orphaned Chinese boy who grows up as a ward in the home of an influential white professor who refuses to acknowledge him and holds racist views of other cultures. Robin is trained in multiple languages to prepare him for admittance to Babel, the prestigious program at Oxford for the empire's translators. The best "Babblers" can use silver, along with their translations, as tools to power the machines and ships that keep the empire running. This alternate 19th-century Britain differs from our own, but the societal issues remain the same. While absorbing, this is not always an easy read, as it is grim and dense, filled with explanations of etymology and footnotes. The idea to use a separate narrator (Billie Fulford-Brown) to narrate the footnotes is ingenious, enhancing main narrator Chris Lew Kum Hoi's phenomenal performance and making for a wonderful listening experience. VERDICT Sure to please fantasy readers. Order this unique and absorbing book in all formats.--Ammi Bui
Publishers Weekly Review
Kuang (the Poppy War trilogy) underwhelms with a didactic, unsubtle take on dark academia and imperialism. After the unnamed protagonist's mother dies in 1830s Canton, he dubs himself Robin Swift at the urging of professor Richard Lovell, an Oxford sinologist who tutors Mandarin-speaking Robin to become a student at Babel, Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation. Robin falls in love with Oxford and his cohort: witty Calcutta-born Ramiz Rafi Mirza; secretive Haitian-born Victorie Desgraves; and self-righteous Brighton-born Letitia Price. Together they learn the magical process of capturing in silver the linguistic nuances lost in translation--and along the way uncover the process's ties to imperialism. This brilliant, ambitious concept falters in execution, reading more like a postcolonial social history than a proper novel. The narrative is frequently interrupted by lectures on why imperialism is bad, not trusting the reader or the plot itself enough to know that this message will be clear from the events as they unfold. Kuang assumes an audience that disagrees with her, and the result keeps readers who are already aware of the evils of racism and empire at arm's length. The characters, meanwhile, often feel dubiously motivated. Readers will be drawn in by the fascinating, linguistic magic system and righteous stance, but many will come away frustrated. Agent: Hannah Bowman, Liza Dawson Associates. (Aug.)
Booklist Review
Kuang follows her award-winning Poppy War trilogy with an engaging fantasy about the magic of language. Her richly descriptive stand-alone novel about an ever-expanding, alternate-world empire powered by magically enhanced silver talismans scrutinizes linguistics, history, politics, and the social customs of Victorian-era Great Britain. Professor Richard Lovell, an expert in Asiatic languages, brings a young Chinese orphan home from Macau for the specific purpose of raising and training him to be a student at the Royal Institute of Translation, Oxford University's prized educational tower of Babel and storage vault for the largest supply of silver in the world. Although able to pass for white, Robin Swift comes to understand he will never be fully accepted into English society. But over time he becomes content with the comfortable life provided by the professor and his Oxford scholarship. Then one evening he stumbles across a group stealing from Babel--a group whose leader has a face exactly like his own. This encounter changes Robin as he learns of his own purpose in the insidiousness behind Babel and its ties to the expansionist designs of the British Empire. Fans of in-depth historical fantasy will be delighted with Kuang's latest.
Kirkus Review
Can the British Empire, built on the power of foreign languages and magic, maintain its grip on the globe? In 1829, professor Richard Lovell brings a young Chinese boy now known as Robin Swift from his home in Canton to England. Saved from the cholera outbreak that claimed the rest of his family, Robin has the chance to begin a new, comfortable life at professor Lovell's estate. In exchange for food and lodging, he will spend years studying Latin, Greek, and Mandarin to prepare himself to enter Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation, known as Babel. In Oxford, Robin meets other students who are not so different from him: young people brought to England from other countries to maintain the empire. Britain has built its power upon silver bars and the magical powers imparted to them by translation, but in order to maintain that power, Britain needs foreigners and their languages. Though Robin and his friends are met with racism, they also find true joy in their studies and the heady business of translation. Soon, Robin learns of the secretive Hermes Society, a group working against the hegemony of the Royal Institute of Translation. As Robin's studies continue, he begins to question the colonial machine from which he can't seem to break free. Kuang draws a keen parallel between extracting knowledge and extracting resources, examining the terrible power of systems built on inequality and the uncomfortable experiences of the marginalized within those systems, whether due to race or gender. While occasionally hampered by rather self-aware critiques of colonialism, in general this is an expansive, sympathetic, and nevertheless scathing critique of Western imperialism and how individuals are forced to make their peace with the system and survive or to fight back and face the consequences. It's ambitious and powerful while displaying a deep love of language and literature. Dark academia as it should be. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller from the author of The Poppy War

"Absolutely phenomenal. One of the most brilliant, razor-sharp books I've had the pleasure of reading that isn't just an alternative fantastical history, but an interrogative one; one that grabs colonial history and the Industrial Revolution, turns it over, and shakes it out." -- Shannon Chakraborty, bestselling author of The City of Brass

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire.

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation--also known as Babel.

Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working--the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars--has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire's quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide...

Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

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