I truly did not know what to expect from Babel when it was chosen in my book club. Written by R. F. Kuang, this 550-page tome begins strong. We enter mid-19th century England, where a technology called silver is helping in the advancement of all sorts of machines. Silver in the form of bars have a pair of related words from two languages inscribed on them and they derive their mystical energy from the meaning lost in translation. These silver bars are produced by the world’s greatest linguists at Babel, the building housing the languages department at Oxford college.
We follow the footsteps of Robin (the protagonist), Ramy, Victoire and Letty, the 4 new students at Babel through their 4 years of college. They had been pulled in their childhood from different parts of the world (China, India, Haiti) with an eye on extracting the potential of their native languages for silver working. Babel seems like the center of the technology world and the students are truly in awe of the great professors, courses, resources and facilities they are offered. This perfect image starts to crack slowly after Robin (and later others) start to learn how unfairly England is using silver for its expansion around the world and they get drawn into the secret Hermes Society to rebel against Babel.
As you might have deduced by now, the initial characters and settings in the book draw heavily from Harry Potter (4 kids, Hogwarts and magic). The idea of technology powered by language and a world where linguists rule though is truly unique and commendable. There is a considerable amount of (heavily footnoted) etymology about English, Greek, Latin, French, German, Chinese and Hindi words that is used to establish the premise. The world of England and Oxford of that era too is deep enough to pull the reader in. Race also takes a central role and the racism the characters face in 19th century England is pivotal to the story and the arc it takes. I also felt that the author nicely portrays the hardships that immigrant students and workers feel in a foreign country. After a truly enthralling first act, the book gets steadily weaker with the Hermes Society (second act) and the murder and taking of the tower. The author is way out of her depth once she moves out of the domain of language, race, and the immigrant experience into the realm of underworld, protest, villainy and violence. If the plot had been tightened by removing the many unnecessary arcs, the book could have been cut in half and would have been a scorcher.