The city of dreaming spires.
It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world.
And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.
Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift.
Until it became a prison...
But can a student stand against an empire?
An incendiary new novel from award-winning author R.F. Kuang about the power of language, the violence of colonialism, and the sacrifices of resistance.
1828. Robin Swift is saved from the sickness sweeping across Canton by a strange Englishman and a bar of silver. He is given a proposition: he can travel with this stranger, Professor Lovell, to a life of physical comfort in London, where he will commence studies in Latin, Ancient Greek and Mandarin, or he can stay in Canton, orphaned and alone.
In London, Robin learns of Oxford – which Professor Lovell calls the ‘centre of all knowledge and innovation in the civilised world’ – and Babel College, where silver-workers and translators turn language into magic. It is admission to Babel that Robin aims for, to join that elite, secretive group of translators whose magic powers the Great British Empire.
Once at Oxford Robin meets his classmates – Ramy, Letty, and Victoire – and begins his gruelling studies. As one of only two Mandarin speakers at Babel, Robin is valuable beyond measure to the Institute of Translation. But the longer he remains there, the more he begins to question his purpose and place in the Empire.
R.F. Kuang’s first historical fantasy series, The Poppy War, examined colonialism through violence that was physical and overt, but the violence in Babel is quieter, more subversive, and therefore more sinister. Kuang explores how the very idea of translation can be an act of betrayal. In a world where one culture insists on its own superiority, translation is an act of violence, an act of self- destruction. Babel is focused on the waysin which a conquering empire will pillage a culture, its people and its languages. Lovell sees himself as a kind benefactor, lifting Robin into ‘civilisation’, giving him access to knowledge, but in doing so forces the boy to butcher his very self.
I am continually astounded by Kuang’s talent and ability to write in such nuanced and layered ways. Babel has been marketed as dark academia, but it’s so much more. It is a novel about colonialism, language, connection and revolution – a novel about the choices we make, the battles we fight, and the violence we choose to ignore.
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- St Kilda
- State Library
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