A Review of RF Kuang’s “Babel”

This week on the entertainment column I thought I’d take a moment to review RF Kuang’s Babel — a tour de force release from the early fall that I sadly didn’t have a chance to write about at the time. Kuang has had a seat reserved on my personal pantheon of all time favorite authors ever since I read her 2018 debut novel The Poppy War, but with Babel she has, if possible, outdone herself. 

Where the world of The Poppy War represented a fairly standard epic fantasy, if one brutally informed by the opium wars of 19th century China, Babel is, in many ways, closer to home — and all the more devastating for it. Kuang’s new narrator, like the author herself, is a child of two worlds: born in Canton, Robin Swift is left orphaned by plague at an early age, only to be adopted and taken to London by the enigmatic Professor Lovell. There he’s trained in dozens of languages alive and dead in preparation for his enrollment at the Oxford College at Babel, a hub of linguistic magic at the heart of the British Empire’s might.

Longtime Kuang fans will know not to trust the illusion of safety and luxury Babel provides, but nevertheless it’s hard not to lose oneself in the lush world of Oxford as Kuang conjures golden days of study and friendship inspired by her own time at the college. Yet it’s precisely that vitality of writing that makes Babel’s slow tumble into dark academia all the more gripping. As late nights spent laughing in ice skates on the Thames become breathless heists in the dark, Kuang weaves a heartbreaking tale of love, power, and the cost of revolution. 

While, in many ways, the same could be said of The Poppy War — I found Babel by far the more powerful story, if only because it cuts so close to reality. The wars of the Cike, as thrilling as they were, took place in a world of great warriors and old gods, a land of myth not yet ready to submit to the onrushing future. Babel is that story’s ghost and its successor, a glimpse forward into a time when the death of the gods has come and colonial might dominates the world. And because that past is so much easier to recognize, it becomes much harder to look away from. After all, I have never been and never will be a Shaman of the fire gods battling to hold a strait against the Empress’s navy, but I am a college student, and it is academia, and the power and duty wrapped up in it, that Kuang has turned her critical eye to here. I can only be glad she did.

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