Oxford in 1836 is the centre of an empire, the seat of all knowledge, learning, technology, colonialist privilege, and – crucially – of the magic that drives it all. 

In the tower of Babel, the most eminent of Oxford academic institutions, skilled translators harness the elusive tension between translated words. Inscribed into silver and activated through articulation by fluent speakers of both languages, translated ‘match pairs’ can bring about powerful – and sometimes terrible – effects. Into this Oxford comes Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton, adopted into an academic life that he finds first idyllic and magical, but in which he soon begins to perceive the dark secrets and cruelties of empire. 

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution probably tops my list of best recent fantasy books. I loved the setting (alternate imaginings of cities are fascinating to me), the atmosphere (a superb dark academia vibe) and the execution of the ‘orphan boy learns magic’ trope. 

At 545 pages it is a bit of a tome, but that is short for a self-contained fantasy story, many of which tend to be told over the course of multi-book series. Within that relatively short space of reading time, Kuang establishes a complex world and original magic system, and takes us on a journey that feels expansive and important. 

At some points in the story, it felt for me more idea driven than character driven (which I do not say here as a bad thing – just an observation). Discourse on the magic system essentially becomes a philosophy of translation, and – particularly as someone with a language background – I soaked it up. The commentary on colonialism is also really well drawn and gripping. The world is in this respect close to our real one, except with the magic of Babel built into the picture. Given this, the challenge – and sometimes almost doomed-feeling difficulty – of positive societal change feels very close to home. 

That is not to say there were not also expertly-articulated characters. I particularly liked the complexity of many who are initially rather more ‘side’ than ‘main’, only to come to the fore later in the novel (Victoire my favourite among these). Initially I liked Robin’s perspective mainly as the naive eyes through which we as readers could take in this fascinating world – however I did become far more interested in him as an actual character towards the end, where he undergoes some real change and growth from his experiences. 

I’ll end with a shout out to the audiobook version. This was how I experienced this story, and I do think there were some significant advantages to doing it this way. Language and translation are at the heart of the book. Being able to hear the languages brought it to life for me I think, in a way that would have been less possible reading from the page. The narrators, Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Billie Fulford Brown, were brilliant. Listening to it also forced me to consume the footnotes as much as the main text, which I think added to the experience. 

I highly recommend this book. Pick it up if you feel in the mood for dark academia and dark doings, an original and intricate magic system, and a story that reflects our own world in a way that provokes thought.