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Babel Book Review: Does this Fantasy by RF Kuang Live Up to the Hype?

I first read Babel in January of 2023, and I’m still thinking about it over a year later. When a story stays with me that long, it is worth talking about! So today, I’ll share with you my Babel book review, focusing on the highs and lows of this profound and gripping novel.

What sets this book apart is Kuang’s talent for rigorous, thought-provoking storytelling complemented by an extensive amount of research; it’s a strong literary piece that intelligently dissects language, translation, and betrayal, and I have no doubts it is a book that will stand the test of time.

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this article, which means if you make a purchase after clicking on one, I may earn a commission. Full disclaimer here.


Read if you like:

  • Dark academia

  • Donna Tartt’s The Secret history

  • You like RF Kuang’s writing

  • You want to read a poignant story that leaves a lasting impression

  • Alternate history wi

Skip if you don’t like:

  • Dark fantasy with sad, heartbreaking twists and turns

  • Dense academic writing about foreign languages

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The Plot of Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxofrt Translator’s Revolution

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence follows the journey of main character Robin Swift, a Chinese boy raised by the mysterious professor Lovell in England after losing his mother to cholera in China, with the expectation that one day he’ll enroll at Oxford where Lovell teaches. Beginning with his intense language and translation studies, the story unfolds as Robin eventually attends the prestigious translation institute at the University of Oxford.

Once there, Robin becomes a part of Babel, a mysterious tower dedicated to translation and the power it holds. Babel’s research into different languages opens up a new exciting world for Robin. However, as Robin uncovers the true nature of Babel and its influence on the world, he’s faced with difficult choices that make you question the role of institutions and power, especially as he becomes involved with the covert operation, the shadowy Hermes Society – an organization dedicated to putting a stop to the unjust war and imperial expansion of the British.

Magic System

I’ve got to say, I found the magic system in Babel to be incredibly unique and fascinating. The students learn “silver working,” which is a magical effect that imbues silver bars for various uses, from enhancing buildings to supporting medicine, is just amazing.

Using “match pair” foreign languages to bestow magical properties onto the silver adds another layer of complexity that I haven’t seen in many fantasy books. These enchanted silver bars power everything from lighting to structural reinforcements and are the world’s most precious and powerful assett.

It can be a bit challenging to follow at times, and it took me a while to fully wrap my head around it. But once I did, I found it to be a real standout aspect of the book, and it added tremendously to the overall reading experience. Definitely a breath of fresh air in the world of magical systems!



Although this book is fantasy, it is an eye-opener when it comes to colonialism and its impact. The story offers an insightful commentary on the repercussions of colonialism and the way it intertwines with the characters’ lives. It was both intriguing and heartbreaking to see how this theme developed throughout the novel.


Race is another significant theme in this poignant book. The novel delves into the complexities that arise from different racial backgrounds and the prejudices and biases that come with them. The author navigates these challenging topics in a thoughtful and engaging manner, ensuring that the reader truly considers the implications of race on each character’s journey.

Ethics and Self-Discovery

The theme of ethics and self-discovery really pulled at my heartstrings most as I read the novel. Bable masterfully deals with the Robins’s internal struggles, portraying his quest for self-understanding and the ethical dilemmas they face along the way. As friendship, betrayal, and personal growth take center stage, it becomes impossible not to connect to and empathize with his emotional turmoil.

Robin isn’t the only character with that impact. I connected with all the supporting characters as well who become his found family throughout the story. They are just as layered and complicated, which is made more poignant by the three interludes sprinkled throughout the story that feature each character’s point of view.

I was particularly affected by Letty’s story arc, which (without giving anything away) makes one question the objectiveness of ethics.

Historical Influence and Fantasy World-Building

I loved how “Babel” brilliantly blends historical elements with fantasy world-building. R. F. Kuang’s concept of translation as a magical tool for the British empire was absolutely captivating.

While the book isn’t real history, the author’s attention to detail when it comes to the historical aspects of the story, especially during the 19th-century imperialistic era, adds impressive depth and realism to the fictional world.

Kuang does a fantastic job of evoking the atmosphere of Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, which serves as the central setting for the story.

That said, the themes and political aspects of this story might be heavy for those looking for a more escapist read. If you’re looking for a light, whimsical read – this isn’t it.

Reading Experience

I have to admit, diving into Babel initially felt a bit overwhelming. With all the lessons on etymology and translation, I found the first half extremely dense. At times, it almost felt like I was reading a university textbook!

The pacing at the beginning is pretty slow as a result, and although I didn’t find it boring, it was mentally taxing, so it took me a while to get through the first part of the book. However, it was vital to set the foundation for the rest of the story, and there is a certain turning point where things really take off. (You’ll know exactly what part I’m talking about when you get to it!)

From there on, I found myself absolutely engrossed. The climax of the book is equally captivating and emotional, making for a truly unforgettable reading experience. (It takes a lot for a book to make me cry, but Babel achieved this feat with ease.)

So, if you started the story and are thinking of adding it to your DNF list because of how slow the beginning is, just push through it – it’s worth it!

Other Thoughts

I will mention that there are some dark things that happen in this book that at times make for uncomfortable reading. If you’re the kind of person who needs to avoid certain triggers when reading, you’ll want to check the trigger warnings for this book.

There’s also a boatload of footnotes. It can feel overwhelming in the beginning, but by the end I actually enjoyed checking the footnotes and felt they did enhance the reading experience.

Babel Book Review Conclusion

Overall, I highly recommend giving this book a read, especially if you enjoy a thought-provoking and historically rich story.

I loved how the book made me think and stayed with me long after I finished the last page. It wasn’t perfect, but the experience of reading it was worth it. I found myself getting lost in the world of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution and couldn’t put it down.

Babel is labeled a Fantasy, but it’s not the kind of thing you read if you’re trying to escape reality. Rather, it’s the kind of book that expands your mind and makes you feel as you explore the truths behind the book’s themes. The result is long-lasting and will make you look more closely at your own beliefs and values.

And there are few things that make a book more worth reading than that.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes Babel a standout in recent book releases?

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence caught my attention because it’s not just an alternative history, but an interrogative one. Kuang ingeniously interweaves historical fantasy, magic, and academia to create an engaging, thought-provoking narrative. With a compelling plot, inventive world-building, and a powerful exploration of language and translation, it’s no surprise Babel has earned a spot on multiple awards lists.

Can Babel be considered a young adult novel?

Although Babel isn’t classified as YA, its themes and characters make it accessible and enjoyable for a wide range of readers. But while the protagonist, Robin, is quite young, I think many young teenagers would have trouble getting through it.

What themes are explored in Babel according to seasoned critics?

Having read Babel myself, I can attest to its exploration of various themes, such as student revolution, colonial resistance, and the power dynamics in language and translation. Critics also praise Kuang’s rich descriptions as she delves into the political, social, and cultural aspects of an alternate Victorian-era Britain. Babel’s multifaceted examination of academia and imperialism makes it a must-read for anyone looking to challenge their perspectives.

Why has Babel sparked discussions and controversy?

Babel’s unique blend of historical fantasy, magic, and academia offers a fresh perspective on 19th-century imperialism and the British Empire. Its examination of language, power, and identity sparks intriguing conversations and debates among readers and critics alike. It poses questions about one’s duty to themselves, their culture, and the broader world, prompting discussions about the ethics of serving institutions that may perpetuate injustice and betrayal. The sometimes-controversial content and themes make Babel an invigorating and thought-provoking read.

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