There’s a new dark academia tour de force on the block. But she’s not like other dark academia; but for possessing the common tropes that make a novel dark academia, Babel is the boldest indictment of the evils of English academia I’ve read to date. That’s what I realize I was waiting for, through The Secret History, If We Were Villains, The Atlas Six, and even Legendborn: violence.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.

Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?


Brasenose College, Oxford exhibited 1909 Dugald Sutherland Maccoll 1859-1948 Presented by Geoffrey Blackwell 1919

If you’re not paying attention, you might miss Babel’s subtitle, or take it for a fanciful add-on: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. My favorite part of this novel was the truth in this tidbit. It is about how academic institutions in the west are part and parcel of the empires they serve.

But the dream was shattered. That dream had 
always been founded on a lie. None of them 
had ever stood a chance of truly belonging here,
 for Oxford wanted only one kind of scholar, the 
kind born and bred to cycle through 
posts of power it had created for itself. 
Those towering edifices were built with 
coin from the sale of slaves...

We like dark academia like The Secret History because it articulates the cozy, romantic atmosphere of study. It calls to mind the smell of old books, found families in fellow students, rain and hot tea, a zeal for learning and ideas without the interference of the outside world. What other dark academia often fails to do is lift the veil and show just how intentional that insulation can be—and how the outside world was never that far away at all.

I had forgotten I was reading an RF Kuang novel when I began Babel. I’d signed up for dark academia; here was my found family, here was the sinister professor and the hint of things not quite right. Here was the dream. I was lulled.

It still looked like a city carved out of the past; of ancient spires, pinnacles, and turrets; of soft moonlight on old stones and worn, cobbled roads. Its buildings were so reassuringly heavy, solid, ancient and eternal. The lights that shone through arched windows still promised warmth, old books, and hot tea with; still suggested an idyllic scholar’s life, where ideas were abstract entertainments that could be bandied about without consequences,

But I was reading an RF Kuang novel, and eventually, she turns everything on its head. She introduces violence—the violence of empire and resistance. And it all makes so much sense, because some of these institutions really. have the too-good-to-be-true vibe. The novel is grounds for a well-informed, eloquent debate about the structure of empire and resistance to it, compounded by the emotional connection the reader feels for the characters trapped and desperately fighting with these questions. What this means for the reader is that, yes—just like The Poppy War, you will get your heart wrenched out.

Violence shows them how much we’re willing to give up…Violence is the only language they understand, because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock.


I realize this heading has become something of a recurring bit on the blog. Honestly, tone and style of this novel did not suit the dark academia trope of the found family. Don’t get me wrong, I love RF Kuang’s writing—it’s lyrical yet easy to read and smart without being dense. But we are told about this cohort of students bonding more than we are actually shown. The reader is told over and over again that they will kill for each other, that they love each other more than family, that Robin and Ramy can talk about anything and everything, that Ramy has this kind of personality, that he clashes with this person, that Letty has this personality. It all just feels a little wooden, which hurts the novel later on when those relationships are tested. It also means that the first half of the novel feels decidedly slow.

Robin, as the protagonist, was painfully well-written. I love the way we follow his mind as it leaps between Chinese idioms. His struggles with displacement, yearning, empire, anger and suffering are poignant and heartbreaking. And his name isn’t even really Robin at all; he is Chinese and still dreams in his mother tongue. (Crying!! at the end of the book!! But no spoilers.)

I also really liked the tactful way Letty is written as a tragic character, but then again—not with too much sympathy. It is a beautiful, complete portrait of girl of her time and a wonder to read.

I felt Victoire and Ramy, although they were given interludes that fleshed out their characters a little, got the short end of the stick. There is so much to fit into the book, including the racism, sexism, and xenophobia they face (though we experience this all through Robin, who has his own preoccupations), that their personalities are tucked into a line here and there and not much more. At the beginning, Robin mentions that he thinks Victoire is pretty, but then…well, it’s not really revisited.


There was no innate, perfectly comprehensible language; there was no candidate, not English, not French, that could bully and absorb enough to become one. Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation—a necessary endeavour, however futile, to move between them.

Wow, you can tell that this author loves language! Translation is an endlessly fascinating subject, and this novel indulges in all it has to offer. Kuang’s passion emerges in the footnotes, which I loved, and which didn’t pretend to necessarily be a part of the story. Often, these footnotes, provided historical context for the actions of the British empire, those it oppressed and killed, and those who resisted. The rest are linguistic asides that pull you even deeper into delightful etymologies than the book itself.

The theme of translation is inextricably linked to the theme of globalisation, something the book wrestles with in the context of empire and particularly in the context of China. Kuang turns the inherent impossibility of translation into a creative magic system that manages to both be beautiful and encapsulate the exploitative structures of the British Empire.

While I didn’t find the magic system particularly believable—in the end, it still doesn’t feel like the meaning lost in translation is specific enough to enact certain spells—I did find it lovely. So I suspended my disbelief and cheerfully read about all the wonderful etymology Kuang wanted to throw at me.

Overall, I believe this novel would be quite a trek for some people. If you’re looking for If We Were Villains, petty university drama-type dark academia, you may be disappointed. This novel is more serious than I thought it would be when I went in. (Shocker—just how I felt about The Poppy War!) It starts slowly and the other shoe doesn’t drop for a long time. But it’s quick-witted and beautifully written, and Kuang is an expert at coaxing out tears by the end.

Art thanks to grn23 and mossillustra on Tumpik.

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