Rating: 10 out of 10
"And they would never say it out loud. It hurt too much to consider the truth. It was so much easier to pretend; to keep spinning the fantasy for as long as they could."
"You're free to seek your own harbour. And you can do so much more than tread water."
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, Robin trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation--also known as Babel. The tower and its students are the world's center for translation, and most importantly, magic. Silver-working--the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enriched silver bars--has made the British unparalleled in power, as the arcane craft serves the Empire's quest for colonization. For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, he realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping 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.
Where do I even start with this book. I have to admit I was initially worried it wouldn't live up to the hype. And then I opened it and started reading. I honestly have no words. This book was beautifully written, it was intelligent, well researched, engaging, had amazing characters, a great story line, an immersive world and most importantly it was honest. Kuang was never afraid to state the glaring inconsistencies, the blatant racism, and the contradictions of colonialism. It's a book that forces you to be uncomfortable and acknowledge things like privilege and those who have it and those who don't. It's one of those books that stays with you for a long time after reading.
The connection between language and magic was one that I enjoyed. I have to admit that at times I felt dumb reading the book, but I didn't care because I was so enthralled by the story. I was sucked in from the beginning and anytime I stopped it was hard to come back to reality. I'll admit the book starts off a little slow and sometimes the translation stuff was hard to follow, but my god the rest of the book and what it stood for... Kuang is an amazing author. She has this style that draws you in and makes you want to know what she is going to do or say next. It's been a long time since I've been so emotionally invested in characters, and my god, my heart bled alongside Robin in this novel.
I honestly could talk about this book all day and still never capture the essence of it. It's one of those books that has to be experienced, it has to make you uncomfortable for you to appreciate its true beauty. Kuang vividly portrays racism and colonialism and their impacts on those who are different. The book provides a whole new lens for looking at the world. I think she did a marvelous job of showing characters with vastly different experiences and I believe that everyone should read this book and experience the emotional devastation that comes with it. I could keep going but I won't. Do yourself a favor and read this book.