cover image Babel


R.F. Kuang. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-06-302142-6

Kuang (the Poppy War trilogy) underwhelms with a didactic, unsubtle take on dark academia and imperialism. After the unnamed protagonist’s mother dies in 1830s Canton, he dubs himself Robin Swift at the urging of professor Richard Lovell, an Oxford sinologist who tutors Mandarin-speaking Robin to become a student at Babel, Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation. Robin falls in love with Oxford and his cohort: witty Calcutta-born Ramiz Rafi Mirza; secretive Haitian-born Victorie Desgraves; and self-righteous Brighton-born Letitia Price. Together they learn the magical process of capturing in silver the linguistic nuances lost in translation—and along the way uncover the process’s ties to imperialism. This brilliant, ambitious concept falters in execution, reading more like a postcolonial social history than a proper novel. The narrative is frequently interrupted by lectures on why imperialism is bad, not trusting the reader or the plot itself enough to know that this message will be clear from the events as they unfold. Kuang assumes an audience that disagrees with her, and the result keeps readers who are already aware of the evils of racism and empire at arm’s length. The characters, meanwhile, often feel dubiously motivated. Readers will be drawn in by the fascinating, linguistic magic system and righteous stance, but many will come away frustrated. Agent: Hannah Bowman, Liza Dawson Associates. (Aug.)