Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.

China by Edward Rutherfurd (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

A sweeping novel of China from 1839 – 1900, from the Opium Wars through China’s Century of Humiliation to the suppression of the Boxer rebellion. It’s the story of the conflicts surrounding the forced opening of China to Western trade, customs, and religion. The story is told through a variety of characters who span cultures, classes, backgrounds, and professions (including plenty of women characters with different roles, abilities and agendas). Multiple generations of characters such as a young English merchant trying to make his fortune (through opium), an upright Mandarin charged with enforcing the emperor’s ban of opium, a palace eunuch, a peasant girl, a mercenary pirate, a missionary, a Manchu bannerman, the emperor and various concubines and princes, and some craftsmen. The characters have depth, too. They reflect on what is happening, how they feel about their own role, and how to achieve their goals while maintaining their values (or how to shift their values to attain their goals).

I love that history itself is the protagonist in this novel, rather than the background setting for individual stories. Everything is told through the personal stories of the characters — either through participation in the action or through conversations between neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Even past history is exemplified in ritual and description of the origin of individual morality. This approach brings to the fore what it was like to live through these times with only direct observations and rumors as sources of information. And how very different that information was depending on your location, background, profession, culture and connections. Additionally, there were so many fascinating descriptions of various ways of life — all told in a style that was interesting because someone was learning it (e.g. a craft) or going through it — so always real and never dry. This was a long book, and I literally had trouble putting it down. (As a warning, one of these “fascinating” descriptions was about foot binding, and I skimmed through trying not to read that at all. Of all the atrocities visited upon humans, this is the one I find most horrific and barbaric (yes, even more than female circumcision which comes in a close second).

This is my first Rutherfurd and I’m now going back to read more. Meticulously researched, personal and accurate — a kind of modern day Michener for those old enough to remember classics like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Source, or Caravans. After reading this, I have a far more in-depth understanding about the relationship between China and the West and of life in the 19th century.

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.