Monday, May 23, 2022

ARC Review: Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang

Babel: An Arcane History
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: Uncertain if it's a series
Genre: Historical Fantasy/ Adult/ Science Fiction
Publisher: Harper Voyager 
Publication Date: August 23rd, 2022
Edition: Kindle Edition, 560 pages
Source: NetGalley
Pre-Order: Amazon US | Barnes & Noble | BAM | Book Depository | Bookshop | Powell's | Thriftbooks
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 of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire becoming in power, and Babel's research in foreign languages ​​serves the Empire's quest to colonize everything it encounters.
   Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
   Babel — a thematic response to the secret history and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.

    It took me forever to finish this book. While there is nothing "wrong" with this book, for me it was painfully slow paced. The narrative voice also didn't really work for me. It was written as if a much older adult Robin was retelling his story, but only in certain moments within the same paragraph. And it often left me confused. There were also a lot of scenes with lectures talking in length about the process of translating. It all made me feel very dumb, since I only speak one language and I don't know how these words in French, Latin, Spanish, and the other languages (there are several used) are pronounced.

   I liked the characters for the most part. But I found the magic system far more interesting than the characters. The characters all seemed to be there to fill a role and the protagonist was only slightly more nuanced. This could be because the POV is from some version of his perspective, but it's hard to say. 

   The themes of this book were honestly the best part. Addressing the colonialism, racism (and sexism) that is too often forgotten or ignored that the British Empire took part in in the 1800's, but it was all lost in those nearly half chapter long lectures. As was the magic system. There were also several hyperlinks for cliff notes, I didn't read all of them, but the ones I did read felt like that information could have been woven into the story and some of the lectures could have been cut or reduced. It made the book feel more less like a fiction novel, and more like a textbook.

   I wanted to love this book, and it seems a lot of people who have read it do, but this book was just not for me. I skim-read the last about 20% of the book.

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