5★ books | book review

Babel by R.F. Kuang | Review


I don’t know why I waited this long to pick up Babel. I was excited for it ever since I got to know about its release. It was my birthday present to myself on release day. And then it just stood on my shelf. But hey, better late than never. And now I cannot physically shut up about it.

What is it about?


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?


Book: Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution | Author: R.F. Kuang | Publisher: Harper Voyager | Genre: Historical Fantasy | Pages: 542 | Rep: Chinese MC, Indian side, Haitian side, Japanese side, Black sides, Brown sides, Chinese sides | CN: murder, blood, death, loss of loved ones, racism, classism, sexism

My Opinion


This is a book about language, race and class and it’s evident in every page that R.F. Kuang really knows what she speaks of. Her own academia background really seeps into the story and makes it even better, I think. The book has a fairly slow pace despite being set over the course of several years, is stuffed with information, character development and knowledge. And I have to admit, I am in awe and I am elated about the existence of Babel. I absolutely loved it!

I loved the world building. If you go into this having no idea of British social and economic history up until the 1840s, do yourself a favour and read up on it before going into Babel. Or, like me, have google at hand to look everything up. I knew some things, but not enough to be able to distinguish what was fiction and what was reality. I really enjoyed the addition of a linguistical-magical addition of silver that would not have been strictly necessary but got the language focus a purpose and made the story more interesting.

While I didn’t necessarily liked all of the characters, I enjoyed what each of them brought to the story, making it more facetted and realistic. There’s, of course, Robin‘s POV. He is the main character and I really enjoyed reading from his perspective. It was easy to sympathise with him and his thirst for knowledge and appreciation, for a home and belonging. It was also interesting to follow his growth and how his views change over time, how he develops a sense for himself and his surroundings and how events shape him and give him purpose. He really has such a good character development. I liked how he and his friends came to Oxford young and with so much hope and want for more and how they all grow into the persons they are, each with their own struggles but with problems and fights that bring them together more and more. Ramy and Victoire already have a deeper sense of what both class and race are and how they shape the Empire, the two of them and Robin being three of the few non white people that are accepted into the University. Letty was an interesting character as in she brings in the perspective of a wealthy English citizen but, as Victoire, is a woman and struggles with that. She also brings in the perspective of white western readers who have a lot to learn.
Then there are the other students of Babel as well as professors, who bring in many interesting points and discussions.

What I also loved about Babel was the focus on language. I was already thinking about going back to uni to study linguistics and Babel might just convince me to actually do so. I loved learning about all the languages, be it Chinese or Sanskrit or Latin or even English. I loved all the etymology and how similar yet different a word can be in different languages, how there are nuances to translations and while a translation can be good, it will never be perfect. I know a thing or two about languages but having it in a novel like that just opened my eyes a bit more to these little things. I find languages to be incredibly interesting and I really ate that up in Babel. 10/10.

The aspect of violence in Babel was also very interesting to me. While the book deals with languages, it deals with them as a tool of power that separates people like racism and classism do and adds to the latter. There is an ongoing discussion wether violence is necessary or not to bring down oppressing systems and if so, how much of it. I liked the different characters’ approaches to this topic and how each of them had another boundary for what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

Another aspect I loved was the writing. Miss Kuang can write. The way she weaves her words in a novel that focuses on language and its subtleties, she really managed to bring her points across. I also liked the footnotes that, in most cases, added nothing to the story itself but gave either background info on it or explained something in a language, like writings or the etymology of words.

I don’t have enough words to say how much I loved this novel. Babel was truly a masterpiece and I will scream it from the rooftops and also talk to anyone who will listen. I have found a new favourite book. I usually don’t annotate books but with Babel, it was necessary. There were so many scenes and sentences I want to revisit. Babel gave me so much to think about and bombarded me with info while simultaneously being interesting and gripping. I loved this book so much and I want everyone to read this.



found family | academia | languages | dark academia | history | character growth | characters finding their voice | discussion of socio-economic and political themes | diverse books | historical fiction | historical fantasy


Have you read Babel or another book by R.F. Kuang? What did you think? Do you usually enjoy historical fiction or historical fantasy? How many languages do you speak?

Until next time,

  1. If I was asked about which book I find the most intimidating… it might be this one. I’ve been wanting to read this for such a long time, but I’m scared! My attention span is not great, and I would say that I lean against academic writing because of that. 😂 I LOVE historical fantasies though, and I love it when you can absolutely feel the author’s passion and knowledge on what they’re writing about. I’m still thinking about whether I should read this or The Poppy War (which might be more up my alley) first! Great review, and I’m glad you enjoyed this, Kat! 🙂

    1. thank you! 🙂
      I definitely understand why it’s intimidating. Maybe that’s why I waited so long to read it, too? 😀 But it’s really, really good. And perfect if you love historical fantasy. I mostly didn’t read more than two or three chapters at once, it was just so much input. But also, so, so good! Once you get into Babel, you really *get* into it.
      It really depends on what you prefer, Poppy War is a series with more action but also more graphic brutality. But both books/series are amazingly written and well researched. Both are historical fantasy but Poppy War is more fantasy while Babel is more historical. But both, both are good and I love them. Whichever you pick up, I hope you’ll love it as much as I do! <3

      1. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to read more than two or three chapters at a time if I start this, too. 😂 It might be one of those books where I have to read it along with another one just to keep my attention span in tact.
        I’m thinking of starting Poppy War first! I’m definitely more of a fantasy girlie than historical. Thanks so much! <3

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