‘Babel’ is a tantalizing tale of universities, secret societies and deadly privilege – The Shield



“Babel” by RF Kuang was one of my most anticipated reads of this year. It promised everything I love in a book: magical systems, a poignant narrative, diverse characters, a rich academic setting, and some form of societal commentary or critique. “Babel” not only met those expectations, but exceeded them with more feeling and dedication than I ever expected.

Robin Swift is a young boy on his deathbed in Canton, China, when a mysterious English teacher arrives and magically heals him. The professor offers to give Robin a rich home and an education if he agrees to devote his life to studying the language at Institute of Translation, aka Babel, at Oxford College in England.

There, the tower’s translators work hard to keep the magical money-working system alive. When inscribed with two words in different languages, silver bars have a mysterious effect. They can keep water clean, heal the injured, move trains on their own, or allow people to become completely invisible. England has an almost complete monopoly on this power.

As Robin grows into a young man, he begins to question his upbringing and his place in Oxford, which benefits from the exploitation of countries like China.

He is torn between the privilege and comfort afforded by his life at Oxford and his guilt for aiding an institution that disrespects and oppresses his homeland. Feeling alone apart from his equally ostracized new friends – Ramy Mirza, Victoire Desgraves and Leticia Price – Robin is locked away in a secret society fighting for justice.

This book completely sucked me into its world, then spat me out, shocked and unsure of what to do with myself. I had to try not to cry at work when I finished reading it. I only partially succeeded.

“Babel” is filled to the brim with themes and commentary on issues of colonialism, racism, xenophobia and systems of oppression. It examines how language and multiculturalism can be used as both tools and weapons. The novel proposes that it is impossible to condemn and fight privilege while wholly and ignorantly reaping its benefits.

The book points out that more advanced and established countries are happy to degrade and curse the nations and peoples they take advantage of, whose cultures and goods they take advantage of. “Babel” points out that the very establishments and institutions that favor affluent white communities were built from the sacrifice, labor and knowledge of the oppressed.

This book, very admirably, holds a conversation about the intersectionalities of privilege and oppression, arguing that it is possible to have both at the same time based on diverse identities. Simply, how some people victimize themselves to invalidate the experiences of others.

One of Robin’s friends, Leticia Price, is a white Englishwoman. Although she faces great difficulties as a woman in the Victorian era, she refuses to acknowledge that her friends face discrimination in a different and often worse way. Each time Robin, Ramy or Victoire try to report it, she sees it as an attack on her person.

Leticia does not see how their life paths are different because they are all discriminated against and, in her mind, the distinction between racism and sexism does not matter. These themes are as relevant in real life as they are in “Babel.”

This book is not only educational, it is also entertaining. Beyond the rich explorations of language and discussions of real-world issues, there’s an intriguing plot and lovable characters.

I loved the relationship between Ramy, Robin and Victoire. Letitia, while problematic and unlovable, helped create an interesting dynamic. Their friendship was vibrant, at times toxic, and at others filled with love and togetherness. There are no established romantic relationships between the main characters in the book, which I appreciate. So many books that would do just fine without a romance throw one in anyway. Some romantic feelings between Robin and Ramy are implied, but they are subtle and unrealized, never a central plot point.

There was quite a bit of mystery and tension throughout “Babel” that kept it engaging. Between secret societies, murders and unknown disappearances, this book builds suspense. I certainly found myself sympathizing with the main characters as they tried to navigate the twists and turns.

Robin’s growth throughout the book is heartbreaking and satisfying. He goes from willfully ignorant, to timidly rebellious, to brash and a powerful leader of an uprising. Although it took a lot of tragedy for him to get there and his actions were influenced by revenge and anger, his character development was fascinating to watch.

“Babel” ends in style. Several hits, in fact. I won’t give away spoilers, but the last hundred pages of the book ripped my heart out and stomped on it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. As painful as it was, it was completely realistic and necessary for their scenario. A happy ending for all of our characters would have taken away so much of the impact of the whole story.

Although this is personally a five-star read, it may not be for everyone. Don’t go into this book expecting a fantasy – it’s historical fiction at best with a dash of magic. This book is also quite heavy on the history and rules of the language. It was written in a captivating enough way for me to enjoy the lesson, but if you don’t like the subject matter, it can be a chore to read. Content warnings for the book can be found here.

This book was easily one of my favorites of the year, providing both entertainment and meaningful discussion. Anytime a book can really speak to my emotions or really make me think about an important topic, it’s five stars for me – and “Babel” does both.

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