Book Review: BABEL by R. F. Kuang

Title in vertical black on white on etching of a tower on a gothic skyline
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 4 stars
Series: standalone


Book cover for BABEL: title in black on woodcut of Oxford split down middle

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?

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


BABEL is a book of epic proportions, a story of academics going up against and empire and struggling with the sense of desiring and loving something that you also hate and excludes you.

This is a meticulously researched historical fantasy novel, full of details and also linguistical nerdery. I loved the way it took real events and real politics (the silver crisis of the 1800s) and added magic, transforming and magnifying it to be even more deadly and seductive. It’s a rich world that uses the history to reflect the many ways things haven’t changed in almost 200 years, and the weapons and arguments still used today by the elite and privileged.

It is such a great magic system, the way the dissonance between the nuances of words becomes the power. It’s a hard magic system (my favourite type), where everything has clear rules and consequences, so when it goes wrong, it feels earnt and not on a whim.

Also this is a dark academia that actually involves both learning existing knowledge and adding to the body of knowledge? As an academic myself, I always feel a bit meh when a dark academia just uses the academia part as an aesthetic but BABEL doesn’t do that at all. It is about knowledge at its heart – the control and exploitation of it.

The writing is also great, hooking and hard to put down (despite it being a big book that’s hurting your wrists…) It’s a slower written book, which gives it time to conjure the world and explore Robin’s confliction over Babel. Plus there’s a sense of plodding inevitability of drawing towards the final confrontation (and the ending itself, which I predicted very early on.) The tension is in who will blink first, send the dominoes toppling over.

I started reading this book as an audiobook but DNF’d that. This book has footnotes in and, in the audiobook, they are spoken by another narrator, just butting into the main book, interrupting the flow. It was so jarring and I just felt like I was continually being jerked out of the story.

Even in print from, I did not enjoy the footnotes. Trying to read them kept pulling me out of the story as they interrupted the flow, and they didn’t add anything necessary. It was like reading scenes and paragraphs that had ben cut from the main story because they meandered and distracted from the story and emotions of it, or read like an academic’s insertions, which created a tone mismatch. I wish I’d given up on them earlier. (My opinion on footnotes in novels is the same as in academic texts – if it’s necessary, include it in the main body. If not, don’t bother. And this book only reinforced that feeling.) ((Honestly, I think this book would have been 5 stars if not for the footnotes. They were so distracting and felt like they detracted a lot from the book.))

Read my reviews of other books by R. F. Kuang:

The Poppy War:

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