The Nebula Awards are tonight, May 14th! In honor of that, I'm posting my review of Babel by R.F. Kuang, a Nebula nominee for best novel this year. It's Kuang's fourth novel (others by her are the Poppy War Trilogy and her fifth book, Yellowface). Since part of my reading goals incudes more award winners and nominees, I couldn't pass this one up.
Babel focuses on 1830s Oxford, England, where a magic program exists at the university in a tower called Babel. The magic of this world is based on translation and linguistics and requires silver to work. The main character, Robin, is an orphan from Canton, China, brought to England as a child by his guardian/Babel professor. Robin's journey at Oxford (ten years after moving to England) is the main bulk of this beefy tome (557 pages).
I enjoyed Babel a ton. I'm big into etymology, so the fact that magic was based on it and characters had conversations about word origins really worked for me. I also loved the magic system in general, including that it took a ton of studying but was accessible to anyone who tried hard enough (and had the money) to learn it. For that reason, it will be a comp for the WIP I'm finishing. The anti-colonial themes were deftly handled.
A lot of time passes in the novel, and some of it is glossed over that I wanted to read about. This would have made a very long novel even longer, and I wondered if it could have been then split into multiple books. Then again, I have to wonder why some of those glossed over moments were mentioned at all, since the book was already so long and anything not set in a scene wasn't as impactful in the overall story anyway.
This book is for you if you're looking for a magic system that's fresh and different, if you're a fan of linguistics/etymology (especially Latin and Chinese), and if you're on the hunt for anti-colonial themes. It's not for you if you need a thick book to move at a breakneck pace, if you're looking for secondary world fantasy, or if you're not in the right headspace to read about child abuse.
Have you read Babel? What about The Poppy War? What other great award nominees/winners should I read this year? Let's discuss in the comments.
UPDATE: Babel won the 2023 Nebula Award for Best Novel! Congrats R.F. Kuang!