10/23/22 → 1/16/23
Babel follows a young Chinese man named Robin, who is raised by an English professor so that he may one day study at the prestigious Babel
Institute of Translation at Oxford. There, he befriends three fellow students named Ramy, Victoire, and Letty. As they pursue their education in
translation and the mysterious magic of silver-working at Babel, Robin is contacted by a mysterious society that opposes Babel and the British Empire.
Robin uncovers secrets and a plot to instigate a war against China, and he must decide just how far he is willing to go to fight against oppression and colonialism.
Well, this was a disappointment. Babel is one of the longest 500-something page books I've read in a while. Reading this book was like chewing
cardboard. The first 2/3 of it was pretty boring and although it picked up in the end, I'm still lukewarm towards it. The characters were
flat and one-note mouthpieces for the author. Although I agree with Kuang on all her points, by the end I was getting annoyed by her constant
soapboxing. I don't mind commentary in books. In fact, I usually quite like it. Well done commentary will often elevate a book for me. However,
I prefer the commentary to be more subtle. Rather than telling you how to think, I like it when the author leaves you to come to your own conclusions.
Kuang's subtlety is like me taking a sledgehammer to a ceramics shop. Additionally, the worldbuilding was really bad. I'd prefer that Kuang had
written this as historical fiction, because the worldbuilding clearly wasn't thought through. Or better yet, she should have written this as nonfiction,
because this book felt like an essay in novel form.
The last half of the book especially reminded me of an essay. Much like how I would rush to the end of an essay while writing it for class, Kuang
rushed to conclude this book and the arguments she was presenting. Initially upon finishing the book, I thought that the pacing was very slow.
Upon reflection, I realized that the only way it felt like that was because I was bored throughout the majority of the story. In reality, the
book's pacing is actually quite rushed. Kuang breezes through the characters' time at school. I mean, it takes pretty much no time for Robin to
become radicalized and join what is essentially a terrorist group.
The worldbuilding doesn't really make sense and I get the feeling that Kuang didn't fully think things through. What I don't get was what was the
point of making this a fantasy novel? What was the point of silver-working? The existence of magic should have ramifications and consequences on
the course of history and the structure of society, religion, economy, and culture. However, the existence of silver-working literally did nothing
to change Britain's history or the history of the entire world. If the magic didn't effect anything, then what was the point of it? The magic system
itself wasn't great and left me a little confused. I'm fine with soft magic systems were things aren't explained and just work. However, Kuang
constantly kept trying to explain the magic system and it didn't really make sense to me. For instance, the magic can only be done by people intimately
familiar with languages and only 'real' languages, spoken by people, work. However, there was mention of an experiment were scholars locked themselves
away to learn old English, to use it for their magic. If they could use old English for match pairs, then why couldn't they use a fake language that
was well-studied and used under similar circumstances? For all intents and purposes, old English would be equivalent to a fake language, as pretty
much no one could speak or understand it.
I think my biggest issue with this book are the characters. The characterization was very shallow and I didn't really feel like the characters
developed much over the course of the book. They predominantly served as vehicles through which Kuang delivers arguments and observations that she wants
the reader to hear, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for that character think that specific thing or make that specific observation. The
viewpoints held by many of the characters didn't make sense, especially in a historical context. They felt very modern. For instance, given his
upbringing, it didn't make sense that Robin was so anti-colonialism and anti-racism (at least initially), considering that he was adopted at a
young age and raised in upper class British society. He was immersed in British culture and surrounded by Englishmen espousing pro-British pro-colonial
ideals all the time. And yet, even as a young man, he could identify racism and succinctly observe the racist power structures around him. It would have
been far more interesting for him to have been blind to these things, and perhaps even defend it, while other characters like Ramy and Victoire could offer
different views. This would have made the characters more interesting and created conflict for them to develop as characters. Instead, Robin found himself
with a cohort of like-minded individuals who had very modern takes on racism and colonialism. This also applies to Victoire and Letty, who were bashing sexism
from the get-go. In reality, the concept of feminism would have been vastly different at that historical time period, and women's suffrage wouldn't really pick
up until decades later in England.
This is a minor nitpick, but I don't really get why the footnotes were included. They were largely unnecessary and felt like a crutch for Kuang to either cram
in some extra commentary about colonialism, or a way for her to cheat and provide insight to character motivations that we would never get from Robin's
The one thing I did like was the argument that Kuang was trying to make. I agree with her belief that violence is necessary in order to enact change, especially
when it comes to systemic oppression and racism. Although 'violence' might not be the right word. I don't think that anyone has to be hurt or killed, but I do
agree with her that disruption is required for actual change to occur. Unless people are inconvenienced in some way, issues will most likely be brushed over
and ignored. It is only when people are forced to confront problems that they address them.
Anyway, I thought that this book was pretty mediocre. Everything in the novel felt like a way for Kuang to make the points she was trying to make, not to tell
a story. This is especially frustrating for me because I agree with her viewpoints and would love to read a good novel that explore these themes in a compelling
way. Unfortunately, Babel was not that novel.