• The Good: Ambitious historical fantasy epic about words, knowledge, power, and student revolutions
  • The Bad: Understated fantasy and magical elements
  • The Literary: A love letter to etymology; A love-hate letter to academia

Plucked from a cholera-ridden house in 1828 Canton where his mother lay dying, a young Chinese boy is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. Robin Swift chooses his new name after his favorite book, Gulliver’s Travels, and spends years studying Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese. He dreams of one day becoming a student at Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation.

Babel is a fantasy book, but it feels real. The magic is rooted in silver-working, which is controlled entirely by the world’s center for translation at Oxford. It’s a tower of languages, commonly called Babel by the other departments on campus. Learning to work silver is a fourth-year privilege, in which a student learns to use two words in different languages to manifest the meaning that is lost in translation.

But one of the first lessons students learn, even as first years, is that the act of translation is always an act of betrayal, whether it’s the giving or receiving language, or the context of time and place. Robyn makes it to Oxford but soon realizes that a Chinese boy raised in Britain is not considered British by many of his fellow students. In fact, serving Bable may mean betraying his motherland, especially when he finds that Babel’s silver-workers only translate from other languages into English, which creates an unjust power dynamic of global colonization.

What I love about this book is that it’s a real journey. Robin is a fish out of water who learns to navigate the collegiate system, the magical system, and his own internal struggle with identity and allegiance to a country that only tolerates him. It feels like a young adult novel at the beginning, with a small group of friends learning to become scholars in a big magical school. Robin’s friends are the outcasts, the few with different skin tones or those who are women, so you root for them as underdogs.

The worldbuilding entices the reader on another kind of journey, through 19th century England, where the line between the magical and the historical is blurred with detailed research of the time, including footnotes. Robin’s time in London before Oxford nods to Dickens and Doyle. Robin finds himself at Oxford, and the insular and overwhelming academic life is an homage to the optimistic bildungsroman of so many boarding school stories.

Lastly, there’s the love of words. Robin learns the love of language and meaning. Magic derives from fluency, and only those who dream in different languages are the true masters of silver working. Robin and his friends dwell on the etymology of words and make connections across culture and history. Linguistics is the name of the game.

Highly recommended for fans of British boarding school novels who are ready to explore the dark side of British colonialism.

“I think translation can be much harder than original composition in many ways. The poet is free to say whatever he likes, you see– he can choose from any number of linguistic tricks in the language he’s composing in. Word choice, word order, sound– they all matter, and without any one of them the whole thing falls apart. That’s why Shelley writes that translating poetry is about as wise as casting a violet into a crucible. So the translator needs to be translator, literary critic, and poet all at once– he must read the original well enough to understand all the machinery at play, to convey its meaning with as much accuracy as possible, then rearrange the translated meaning into an aesthetically pleasing structure in the target language that, by his judgment, matches the original. The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”