Babel, the latest novel by fantasy author RF Kuang, is relevant to any student with its pointed criticism of academia and its relationship with colonialism. Set in the early 1800s, Kuang depicts an alternate history in which the British Empire is powered by magical silver. The magic system is imaginative and unique, involving silver bars engraved with translated phrases in order to create magical reactions. The novel plays with the power of translation and connection through language, but also comments on imperial power, the flaws of academia and the power of individuals working together to correct injustice.
The story follows Robin Swift, a boy torn from his home in Canton and brought to London, where his skill in language is honed until he is finally admitted to the Institute of Translation at Oxford University. At the institute, people of colour are accepted for study and taught to use their native languages to manipulate silver. At first, Robin sees Oxford as a paradise where he has friends and a purpose, but he gradually begins to realise the injustices of the academic system. The translators, fluent in many languages from around the world, must submit the power of their native languages to the British Empire, thereby contributing to the expansion of the empire. Eventually, Robin must make a choice between safety and justice, with unexpected consequences.
Babel is unflinching in its criticism of the academic system, reflecting on academia’s role in colonialism as it explores Oxford’s complicity in exploitation. As a recent example of the ‘dark academia’ trend in literature, the novel effectively examines and subverts the romanticised view of so-called ‘prestigious’ universities. Another highlight of the novel is the character development; Robin’s struggle to reconcile his love for Oxford with his conscience is particularly well-realised. The ‘alternate’ world, however, is perhaps not as developed as it could be, with the historical setting remaining largely similar to ours despite the inclusion of magic as a major influence. Nevertheless, Kuang’s writing style pulls the reader into Robin’s world, delivering emotional punches with ease. Despite its considerable length, the novel flies by with exciting twists and believable characters. Any fantasy enthusiasts, disillusioned students or fans of dark academia are encouraged to seek this one out.
Rebecca van Besouw