Fairyloot Adult #6: Babel

Originally, Fairyloot’s focus was on Young-Adult Fantasy books, but that changed in 2022 with the launch of their Adult Fantasy Book-Only subscription. As a subscriber to their regular YA subscription, I was given priority to sign up for this new service, and as a book and fantasy enthusiast, I simply couldn’t resist.

Last August I already received the 6th box. Since I only post these posts when I have actually read the book, there is a bit of a delay in showing of these beauties.

The theme of this month was Arcane History and I think everyone and their mother knew which book was behind that theme!

Of course it was Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang.

For the dust jacket, the concept of the Fairyloot edition is not all that different from the original, only that Fairyloot made it a little more luxurious by working with both silver and gold foiling.
In terms of colour, Fairyloot also made their cover a lot paler, not a reversal of the colors this time, but rather as if they had put a whitewash over it.
In itself I think this has become a really nice whole, but I find the original dark cover a touch more beautiful and it also feels better suited to a dark academia theme.

Beneath the dust jacket, the hardcase has a print of the illustration that is partly hidden under the title on the dust jacket. Silver foil was also used for the stars. Very nice, but what I find most impressive is the print of the tower on the front of the book pages.
The flyleaves have beautiful illustrations of some characters and the book is signed by the author.

Another stunning edition! But what about the content?
When I started this new subscription service, it was with a promise to myself to read these books in a timely manner. The discrepancy between the books I’ve in the meantime bought through such subscriptions and those I’ve actually read has become a bit too embarrassing. So this time I justified this new purchase with a solemn promise to read the books as soon as possible after receiving them and not just place these beauties into my bookcase like a hoarding dragon.
For Babel it still took exactly 4 months between receiving and reading.

Kuang, R.F. – Babel ★★★★

Genre: Fantasy

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

Oxford, 1836.

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.

This turned out to be a difficult book to get into, but in the end one that I really enjoyed.
Babel starts out slow, but the pace is steadily increased to an intense and heartbreaking crescendo.

When I started reading Babel last December, I couldn’t get into it at all. Then I blamed it on my current state of mind and therefore decided to put it aside for a while.
In January I decided to give it a second try, but also then the beginning was difficult and slow.

The concept is nevertheless very intriguing, but in order to fully grasp it, a lot of information is thrown at the reader in short succession, both in the main text and with the help of footnotes at the bottom of the pages. This makes for quite dense reading and thus requires a fair amount of concentration to get into it.
So also in January I contemplated several times about DNF’ing the book, but in the end I just couldn’t do it. A lot of the people I follow online raved about this book and although it wouldn’t be the first time my opinion turned out completely different (*cough* The Atlas Six *cough*), I didn’t want to believe it this time. Maybe I just had to persevere a little longer?

In the end I still had to persevere through to about 150 pages. It’s not that I read it completely against my will, not at all, but I wasn’t completely drawn into it either, not as I’m used to from stories that transcend words on paper.
But then it happened, almost without me being aware of it, that feeling of being drawn into a story, forgetting everything around you and reading for hours on end, when you actually just went to sit to read for five minutes. The story suddenly grabbed me completely and it began to dawn on me what an incredible feat this author had undertaken.

Babel is set in an alternate version of Victorian Britain, which is at its height of imperial power. The key to that power lies largely in the hands of Babel, the mighty translation institution of Oxford. Translations, in fact, are at the heart of the magic system, which is genius in its simplicity: Silver bars are inscribed with a “match-pair”; words in two different languages that mean similar things, but not exactly. That which is lost in translation is manifested through the silver.

“Because translation can never be perfect, the necessary distortions – the meanings lost or warped in the journey – are caught, and then manifested by the silver.”

Because of their great power, England has access to a large number of languages. Children from all over the British Empire, fluent in their mother tongues, are lured away from home to study at Oxford, where they participate in translations and finding even more match-pairs for silverwork.

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible, how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods.”

We follow Robin Swift from the moment he leaves his home to his student days at Babel.
A hopeful, naive boy wants to bring people together through translation, but soon learns that in this colonized world, translating can be seen as an act of betrayal. Because Britain is not interested in sharing their knowledge, because it is quite literally power. And you don’t just share power with just anyone, at least not without being generously paid for it!

“How does all the power from foreign languages just somehow accrue to England? This is no accident; this is a deliberate exploitation of foreign culture and foreign resources.”

This book is hugely ambitious and at times reads more like a thesis than a fictional story. The scope and eloquence are impressive. Racism, imperialism and colonialism are the core themes in a clearly carefully and thoroughly researched book, but precisely because Kuang is so determined to get her important message across, she sometimes loses herself in rhetoric, which detracts from the immersion of the story.

Nevertheless, the story is largely compelling and fascinating. It grabbed my by the throat and filled me with a terrible sense of foreboading.
The characterization is simply brilliant and Robin in particular illustrates the struggle of being between two worlds. His path from hopeful wide-eyed boy to desperate idealist was impressive to read.

The word loss was inadequate. Loss just meant a lack, meant something was missing, but it did not encompass the totality of this severance, this terrifying un-anchoring from all that he’d ever known

In essence, Babel is a story about loss – of oneself, of culture, of a home – of power and powerlessness and of standing with your back against the wall. The author’s passion oozes from every page, and even if it’s a little too much at times, the message gets through. Hard and heartbreaking.
Not a book without flaws, but still a damn good and important book.