A review by anastashamarie
Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang

challenging dark emotional sad slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


⭐ 5/5

📙 This review is going to be a doozy. I have a lot of thoughts after this one. As literary fiction exploring the ugly sides of British colonialism and academia, this work is a masterpiece; it's a well-done character study of the pressures and pain of marginalized populations trying to fit into a world that doesn't feel like it wants them. As a work of speculative fantasy (or as a fantasy novel in general), from a storytelling perspective, I have some complaints. But, the method isn't the point and never was, so I've decided that a 5-star review is probably most accurate when I consider this work for what it was meant to be, rather than what I wanted it to be.

📗 I feel like I should start by saying: This is not the story to read if you are trying to escape from the harsh realities of our world. It throws them at you repeatedly, in both subtle and undeniable ways. As a white woman in academia, I'm going to be honest and say this was at times profoundly uncomfortable to read...which is exactly what it was meant to be. To again go with honesty, there were times that the thought crossed my mind that I didn't need to finish this, that I didn't have to spend my weekend feeling angry on behalf of fictional people living these real life injustices. And that's a privilege that needs acknowledged, for there are so many people who can't just "turn off the audiobook" so to speak, not when these stories so closely mirror their daily experience.

📕 R.F. Kuang does an excellent job of keeping the reader engaged despite this discomfort, which is a feat of its own, but is also a terrible contradiction when considering that the overarching moral of this story is to encourage listening to understand, not to respond. Much the same as even writing a review to try to convey my experience also feels antithetical, as this is not a book designed to entertain, but a book to convey emotion and an experience. Yet I still found myself oscillating between being disappointed in the story structure while being blown away by the rhetoric throughout most of the book. So take where's hereafter for what you will; it's far less important than the rest that I've already said.

📘 Do I think this book was unnecessarily long and at times heavy handed? Yes. Do I wish it had a more satisfying conclusion that actually answered the titles promise to explore the necessity of violence? Also yes. But I also feel like it delivers incredibly well in the way that it conveys its broader themes and morals. Let me explain.

For a book about the power of words, this delivers in it's precise use of them to convey it's point and I think, for the most part, does so most successfully at the micro level. I understood fully why the characters did or did not find necessity in violence themselves, how their tragedies unfolded, and why hope may have still remained despite it all. But I think where we're left to struggle is to see if violence was actually something that made a difference on the macro level. For writing that hammered points over the reader's head at times, there is no actual discussion of whether the broad end justifies the means, because we don't actually see a macro level end in the books, just a micro level end for the characters. Maybe that's the point; maybe the purpose is just that we're if we truly listen to characters who never felt heard and that the story HAS to end with them. The existentialist part of me loves the idea that individual meaning trumps the universal experience. The collectivist part kind of hates the idea that only we alone matter in the end. Regardless, especially as a fantasy reader, the loose ends are tough for me. 

Now, I don't mind ambiguity in a book in general. In fact, I think particularly in books that dive into social issues, nuance is crucial for understanding. This book approaches that nuance incredibly holistically in that it is very precisely, clearly delivered. I think this in part comes from the author's academic career and in part to convey the underlying need to be precise and clear in an attempt to be understood. I just wish the author would have either backed off this directness throughout OR carried it through all the way to the end. Make the point, however unpalatable, or leave it up to the reader to infer entirely. (But I again feel like I should acknowledge that may be easier said than done.)

📚 In the end, I can only truly speak to my experience of this work, as it exists through my own biases and experiences. I hope that honors Kuang's intentions with this story, and I hope that others take the time to read her words. There are so many layers here that I'm sure I'll be unfurling for a while to come.

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