So, after plugging away at it for a while, I finally finished Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang. While it was not the book that I had planned for today, but I just need to talk about it with someone. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
This is the second book I purchased at a pop-up book fair back in June. (The first book was Project Hail Mary, which I discussed in a blog post here.) I had the broad idea that it was alternate reality of Oxford and it tackled the idea of colonialism and words. Not a lot to go on, but I dug in. Even as I started reading it, I wasn’t sure what to think and often chose something else to read. Eventually it hooked and then I looked forward to my dive into this world. It took a long time for me to read, it’s 542 pages and I only read it at night before I went to bed. Although, I will say it wasn’t a “hard” read, by which I mean that the language wasn’t challenging. I thought the story flowed easily, even if the content was provocative.
From the inside cover:
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.
Babel is the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.
For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…
Have you read it? Can we talk about it?
I get it, this isn’t a book that’s for everyone, but I thought it was a powerful story about colonialism, power, supremacy, and what it takes to challenge a system that seems all-powerful. Since I think it probably isn’t a super popular book club pick, I’m going to list out the questions that I want to discuss about this book. Maybe my questions will inspire you to read it or to consider more thoughtfully the point R.F. Kaung is trying to make.
(Also, one thing that I love about sci-fi/fantasy is that often the whole genre is used to challenge norms and expectations. The status quo is always being challenged. I love the way different authors tackle tough topics and the way they choose to resolve things.)
- Did you read it? Did you like it? Why or why not?
- When were you “hooked”? When did the story become so compelling that you didn’t want to stop reading?
- Which of the four main characters (Robin, Ramy, Victoire, or Letty) did you relate to most? Did you relate to any of them?
- This story centers around Robin Swift, but also his friends. What was it like for Robin to become friends with Ramy? How did it change his perspective on life at Babel?
- The first half of the book is about their studies at Babel–the hard work, the hazing by the upperclassman, the challenge of maintaining relationships with peers, teachers, and guardians. Did any of that feel familiar to you?
- Meeting Griffin starts to shift Robin’s perspective on Babel, translation, and even who he is. Was Robin ready for these revelations? Would he ever have been? Why did he respond to Hermes so differently than Ramy and Victoire?
- I feel like the book changes when the students are forced to go to Canton on a mission to appease the Chinese. (Do you agree?) What attitudes from the English make this happen? What does Robin see that starts to make him realize the full power and intent of the English?
- Robin’s entire story is one of loss: his family, his homeland (and other things I won’t spoil for you.), what are the ramifications of this on his life? How does he handle his loss different than Ramy?
- Was the ending satisfying for you? Did you expect that to happen? (I’m going to tell you that I had no clue entire second half of the book was coming. Maybe I should have, maybe that says something about my position of power in relation to Robin’s experience, but the entire 2nd half of the book was a surprise to me.)
- BONUS THOUGHT/QUESTION (And the one I really want to talk about, although I don’t have good words on how to talk about it): Colonialism was awful. However, it’s incorrect to think this story was simply about history, how does this story affect how we think about today, about honoring culture and peoples, about considering other cultures and their ways as valid?
I tried not to spoil this one, but I really think it is worth a thoughtful read. Have you read any books that have made you thoughtful about the world and the way that it is lately? I would love to hear about it.
And in the meantime, grab yourself a copy of Babel. I’d love to talk to you about it!