Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution is the story of a young man, who is named Robin Swift by the English guardian who refuses to let him use his birth name. Robin was taken from Canton and raised by his guardian, a cold and exacting Oxford Don, specifically for the purpose of obtaining an Oxford education in magic, and using that magic to ensure Britain's power over its colonies in an alternate 1830s England.
This book has so many things that are enticing about a dark world, academia, books, and magic schools. It has academic competition and friendship. It has breakthroughs and late night arguments. It has amazing libraries and fascinating professors. It has footnotes. But Babel doesn’t let the reader get comfortable with these things, because Robin, a young man from China, is never allowed to get truly comfortable with them. His ability to belong to his friend group, to his college, with his teachers, his guardian, and in England itself is always contingent on him being “one of the good ones”, even when being “one of the good ones” gets people hurt, even when beng “one of the good ones” hurts him.
Babel is not an optimistic book, but it isn’t without hope. The world the author creates, where both magic and colonialism exist, and companies, governments, and organizations benefit from both, feels upsettingly plausible. But so does the possibility that in such a world alliances and friendships cut across barriers of class, education, and a country can grow into something that would make even the biggest Empires take a step back.
This is a best-seller that warrants all the attention, as do the other books by R. F. Kuang.