Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

eBook, 641 pages

English language

Published Aug. 31, 2022 by HarperCollins UK.

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4 stars (12 reviews)

The city of dreaming spires.

It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world.

And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.

Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift.

Until it became a prison…

But can a student stand against an empire?

2 editions

Ends with a bang!

4 stars

What initially starts off as an imperfect blend of Tart's The Secret History and a low fantasy setting akin to Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell slowly shifts to its actual subject: colonialism. Seen through the lens, not of white saviours nor the faraway colonial subjects, but of it's unique product: people of both worlds, forcefully transplanted, with all the twisted allegiances that come with it. The last third act of the book explodes into a study about struggle and violence, the interwoven working of class and empire, in a way that is seldomly seen in (Western) fiction literature and for this fact alone this book deserves praise and commendation.

a slog with lovely moments scattered through

3 stars

A primer on colonial exploitation around the opium wars, and the conflicts of allegiance for our young scholars of color at an imagined Oxford who feel the abstract distance from such concerns their academic pursuits entangle them in... that sounds pretty good, but the balance of storytelling just kept hitting sour notes for me, long sections of school shenanigans or minutia, or where the magical twist is so thinly veiled it hardly matters, where the characters actions are irrelevant to moving us forward.

A postcolonial, antiracist Harry Potter

4 stars

Kuang's story surprises. This coming-of-age (and coming-of-revolution) story introduces us to a world where the the 19th-century Industrial Revolution is made possible not by steam and worker oppression but by the magical powers of translation and colonial exploitation. The experiences of the protagonist, a Cantonese boy that adopts the English name Robin Swift, lead us to an imagined Oxford that is as intriguing as Hogwarts but that has sins that Kuang not only does not whitewash, but makes the centerpiece of her novel. The historical notes and especially the etymological explanations are fascinating, if occasionally pedantic. Once you get your head around this world and how it works, you'll want to hang on to the end to see how a postcolonial critique during the height of the British Empire can possibly turn out.

Review of 'Babel' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

This memorable novel is both ingeniously creative and importantly timely in its message. R.F. Kuang weaves together a story that injects magical realism into a novel that is both historical and revisionist. That is, this is a story that asks us to imagine the road not taken at a certain time in history, and the ethics of the decisions of those in power–and question how and why such power came to be, in the first place.

I felt that the characters were well-developed and realistically complex, making it possible for the reader to feel the emotion in their stories. The plot was also well crafted and paced.

Instead of summarizing the plot, I want to simply recommend this novel, which I knew nothing about before I started reading. Part of the magic, for me, was simply reading on to discover the shape of the world as it is created by …

Review of 'Babel' on 'Goodreads'

4 stars

It was good, really good. The characters were interesting and three dimensional and enjoyable, the setting and plot was engaging and high stakes, and the translation lectures were tailor made for language nerds like me.

However, don’t do like I did and go into this expecting a fantasy novel. This is, mostly, historical fiction with a magic system reskinning technological progress in Victorian England.

This is not a knock on it, though, saying that it’s superfluous; it has a very interesting, if specific effect on the reader’s relationship with the world. It moves all of the varied goods and services that imperial Britain used to maintain power over their colonies into one spot and one profession: Oxford translators. As I see it, the silver magic system mostly exists to move the political center of Britain into this area. And I enjoyed it if only for this facet, if not for …

provoking, but in a good way

5 stars

I did feel like this violated the dictum "show don't tell" a bit too much, but it has interesting characters and a gripping plot to go with it's anti-colonialism message. Can be read as a straight forward critique of imperialism, but there are also interesting connections (or at least possible interpretations relating) to the role of technology and technology driven capitalism in contemporary society.

Good, but not without flaws

4 stars

Some frustration with footnotes (both spotting the asterix and how Kuang was using them - particularly early on - but there was a moment of clarity later on… but then Chapter 31 happened?!?) and that the queer characters were killed off and never able to tell each other they were head-over-heels (and not in a tragedy style way either)… but otherwise really good.

I love translation and the thought that goes into it - much of which is covered here.

avatar for tk

rated it

5 stars


  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Languages
  • Colonialism