#ClassicandContemporary book challenge: May

#ClassicandContemporary book challenge:
1984 and Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History

Author: R. F. Kuang

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Year: September 2022


I couldn’t be happier that Babel forms part of the #ClassicandContemporary reading challenge! Wow! I can see how this book quickly became so important, something that everyone in the publishing world wouldn’t stop talking about, and why it gathered such a huge readership. The author does an amazing job at portraying Britain as the powerful, unscrupulous empire, always wanting more and more, reaching its goals no matter the price, no matter the means.

R. F. Kuang’s tale of colonialism, magic and language, set in an alternate Oxford in the 1800s, elevated the fantasy genre into something else completely. The magical and fantasy elements were so masterfully incorporated into reality, that it was hard to separate them one from another. It’s a perfect example of urban fantasy and historical fiction mixed together, with dark academia vibes all the way. Here is the blurb, and I’ll continue my thoughts afterwards:

“Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. The tower and its students are the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver-working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted 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, Robin 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?”

First of all, a quick note on Kuang’s use of footnotes. I think they added an extra layer to the novel, it was as if reading a parallel mini-story that enriched the main one. Many people have polarising opinions on footnotes, they find them distracting or pointless, but I think they are necessary in terms of making the main story more detailed, and even more believable in some cases. In this particular book: more than ever, as sometimes I needed some extra clarification on certain concepts, words or historical events, so I found the footnotes helpful. The only downside I could think of would be reading the physical copy of the book, as flipping to the back can be distracting, for sure. In some chapters footnotes appeared quite close together, so I imagine the interruptions can become frustrating at a certain point. I read Babel on my Kindle reading app, so jumping back and forth wasn’t a problem at all.

The only thing I thought wasn’t well executed was the pacing throughout the story. Some periods of time flew by in a matter of a few sentences (like their years of study), while others dragged on forever, when in fact it all happened in just a few hours time. I know it’s a huge time span to cover in a standalone, as opposed to book series, but at the same time, a bit more of an adjustment and an even distribution would have been better.

I loved all the language references and explanations, provided by the characters or by the author, and it’s mind-blowing to think of all the different usages of foreign languages that a human mind can come up with. I have never thought of languages this way and it was half frightening, half inspiring. Magic can always be used for good or for bad, and in the end, it always comes down to what your personal intentions and beliefs are. But also, your environment is important, as well as the people you surround yourself with. How do you make the right choice? How do you know which choice is right or wrong anyway? These sorts of questions are the ones the main character, Robin, asks himself over and over again.

For a fantasy book, Babel deals with so many heavy themes, the one about imperialism and exploitation serving as a base. The world they live in is constructed on top of and because of Britain’s demands and views on how wealth should be amassed, kept and distributed. Its views are not shared by all (what a surprise), and that’s how revolution starts. Will the characters succeed in destroying ages of obsolete thinking, changing the course of time and achieving equality in rights, race and beliefs? Sounds like a (familiar) challenge for a world so used to not questioning its ways. Ever. It was definitely an eye-opening experience of learning about these things from an insider’s point of view, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, which is what our society usually lacks as a whole.

I am sure that Babel encouraged an interest in foreign languages and translation, giving a new perspective on the legacies of the empire, and I believe everyone should read it. It is very intellectually written, a book that makes you think a lot. The idea is definitely a clever one, something so niche and original. I still can’t get over it. I am amazed at how someone can come up with something like this and manage to relate it to our history so well. And to the actuality, for that matter.

I also wanted to share the Bulgarian cover, as I think it looks stunning! Babel will be published in Bulgarian later this year. It should definitely reach a much wider audience and I hope we’ll have more books like this one in the future.

I once read this was the ‘nerdiest book ever’ and the judges of The British Book Awards called it an ‘event book’ of 2022. It won the Nibbies for Best Fiction book of the year.

(mini review)

Author: George Orwell

Genre: Classics, Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction

Publisher: Secker & Warburg

Year: 1949


A mini book review of 1984 as part of the #ClassicandContemporary book challenge!

It was expected that this book would be harsh and difficult. The tension started on the first page and lasted until the last one. It’s an important read, listing some of the dangers of totalitarianism, a political novel written with the purpose of warning readers in the West of the dangers of totalitarian government. It also acts as a warning against freedom of speech and constant surveillance.

The reader experiences the nightmarish world that Orwell envisions through the eyes of the protagonist, Winston Smith. The author explores the novel’s most important themes, like language as mind control, psychological and physical intimidation and manipulation, the importance of knowledge of the past, and changing the course of history.

Winston finds himself struggling to understand what he’s fighting for. Everything he does is being monitored, controlled and evaluated. The conflict between Winston’s essential humanity and dehumanising policies of the Party is developed when Winston’s co-worker, Julia, hands him a slip of paper. Their love story becomes central to the plot and another example of how deeply rooted the Party’s principles are into the individual’s life.

I am glad I read it, but it is definitely a tough one.

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.

In case you need me… #owlbeereading!

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