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Book Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

R.F. Kuang creates an ingenious fantasy set up for Babel – fiendishly appealing to writers and lovers of books: set in nineteenth century Oxford, the industrial revolution in Britain is powered by words. Specifically, words inscribed onto silver bars and translated into other languages, the subtle differences in meaning between which, create magical dissonance that can be highly useful.

Professor Playfair picked up the bar on the far right.

“We’ve sold quite a few copies of this bar to fishermen. The Greek ‘karabos’ has a number of different meanings including ‘boat’, ‘crab’, or ‘beetle’. Where do you think the associations come from?”
“Function?” Ramy ventured. “Were the boats used for catching crabs?”
“Good try, but no.”
“The shape,” Robin guessed. As he spoke it made more sense. “Think of a galley with rows of oars. They’d look like scuttling legs, wouldn’t they? Wait – scuttle, sculler …”
“You’re getting carried away, Mr Swift. But you’re on the right path. Focus on ‘karabos’ for now. From ‘karabos’ we get ‘caravel’, which is a quick and light-weight ship. Both words mean ‘ship’, but only ‘karabos’ retains the sea-creature associations in the original Greek. Are you following?”
They nodded.
He tapped the ends of the bar, where the words ‘karabos’ and ‘caravel’ were written on opposite sides. “Affix this to a fishing ship, and you’ll find it yields a better load than any of its sister craft.

Brilliant stuff, and well written. The book however does a swifty, letting us think at first that we’re in for a Hogwarts-ish exploration of old Oxford, when what’s really coming is an anti-colonialism polemic.
Which becomes ever more laboured and repetitive, the characters lurching to unconvincing insta-violence in order to keep proving the author’s point: that to overcome oppression, fine words in the end don’t cut it, only violence works. This is also rammed home in the subtitle: “The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution”.
All of which I found strange and depressing from a work that revels so much in the power of words. In the end I became repulsed by it.
RF Kuang is a formidable writer with a first-class imagination. It would be nice to see all that talent put towards something less negative.

Here’s my insta’ review:

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