Babel by R.F. Kaung book review

I write this review of Babel through gritted teeth as I know it’s a book that is very well-loved by nearly everybody who’s read it. My social media feeds blew up with how great this book was when it first came out and so I was incredibly excited to read it. I will state that I listened to the majority of it and sometimes listening to a book like this where there isn’t a lot of dialogue and there are some very descriptive pieces of narrative can sometimes remove my immersion, but even then I knew what was going on and I’m still left with the same feeling.

Babel by R.F. Huang book review.

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Babel focuses on the story of our protagonist, later named Robin Swift. He is brought from a small town in China to Oxford, England by an incredibly wealthy and influential man to be given the opportunity to join “Babel” a prestigious translation school in England. During his time at Babel, Robin learns makes new friends, learns of British society and discovers a larger problem with the world in the form of importing these magical silver bars.

Babel plot – 4/5

The story of Babel is quite the epic. It starts off quite innocent with the introduction of Robin being brought to a new school to better learn translation which will help out his new father-like figure, Professor Lovell. He makes new friends and begins to enjoy life in England but is then thrust into a new world when someone who looks a lot like him suddenly appears and offers him a secret life and set of jobs that would see him opposing Lovell and Babel itself.

I found the beginning of Babel really interesting – uncovering these mysteries about what these silver bars did, what their potential was, what the secret society was and what their intentions were. However, it quickly went away from being a book about secrecy, magic and intrigue and became a political thriller. I don’t mind if books are heavily political, however, there was something about the sudden change in direction here that left a sour taste in my mouth.

Rather than it being a book that looked into the potential of these silver bars (what I thought I was going to be reading) it essentially forgot about their magical element and begins to tell a story more about the economics of the world which, in all honesty, felt a little too real and ugly for my liking.

R.F. Kuang sure can write though. She’s got an incredible way of using descriptive language that really does give you a good insight into the scenery, the setting and the mood of both.

Additionally, I’ve not looked it up at all, but if true, there’s some incredible knowledge in here about the translations of language. You may learn a lot about how early languages influenced many of the European languages and how Asian languages often can’t be translated directly as their symbols and words don’t just have one meaning, they often have multiple, almost like we have phrases and sayings in English.

Babel characters – 4.25/5

One of the highlights of Babel was the intense character relationships that Kuang formed throughout the book. There’s definitely progression throughout the book with Robin starting as a young and naive boy and growing into a far more knowledgable and confident man too and these two elements are what drive a lot of the story.

With these two driving forces, Babel creates some characters that not only make you feel for them but also make you feel a lot of their choices are the choices that they would actually make as people.

Without spoiling too much, there’s also a moment where one of the characters we’ve learned to trust becomes one where we really begin to question whether we can fully trust them or not. It creates a fantastic dynamic where you as the reader have grown attached to them but find yourself also trying to convince yourself they’re a villain.

Babel final rating – 4.25/5

I desperately wanted to love Babel, so much of the premise of it is something I’d be interested in usually: historical fiction, fantasy elements and some deep characters with a story that covers many years. However, the flip in the plot from mystery and intrigue to a simple political revolt didn’t do it for me. Yes, there are still some great moments that brought my immersion back in but it just wasn’t enough. I know this book is much-loved but I suppose there has to be someone who doesn’t think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. I liked it a lot, I just didn’t love it.

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2 thoughts on “Babel by R.F. Kaung book review

  • Martin

    Great review. I wonder what induced the author to change the course of their narrative in the manner you describe? It sounds as though the fantasy theme was playing out very nicely.

    • Thanks Martin! Yeah, agreed. It seemed like the first half was more interesting. Maybe there wasn’t really any initial direction and so she was making it up as she went along!

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