Book recs: ‘Babel’ explores dark world of arcane institutions of power

Babel uncovers the story of dark academia setting.

Photo Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

Babel uncovers the story of dark academia setting.

Gianna Cocovinis, Staff Writer

Dark Academia is the perfect genre to get into this time of year. With finals quickly approaching on the horizon, there’s nothing better than a book full of intrigue, betrayal and high-stakes drama, all within an elite boarding school setting. “Babel” written by R.F. Kuang, fulfills all those requirements for readers. 

Set within the year 1828, the story follows Robin Swift, an orphan who lost his parents from cholera in Canton, China. From young adulthood, Robin is ushered to London by a mysterious professor who informs him he will begin training for the foreseeable future in the languages of Latin, Ancient Greek and Chinese. All this rigorous preparation and dedicated schooling is for the goal of one day enrolling in Oxford University’s most prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, widely known as Babel. 

Babel is the epicenter of translation and the art of silver-working, the act of manifesting the meaning of ancient texts that have been lost in translation over the past centuries, all to the magical effect and the advancement of the students’ studies of these ancient texts. The practice has established the British Empire as a dominating force with unparalleled power, but the more power something has established, the more they crave it and let’s face it, Britain has never exactly been known to be complacent when it comes to their quest for conquering and colonizing everything it encounters. Well, the sun never sets, and that is certainly the case in this story. 

 From Robin’s standpoint, Babel represents everything he could ever want and dream to be. Oxford is a fairytale, allowing him to thrive in his pursuit of knowledge in a hub of excitement and grandeur. Yet gaining that knowledge and access to Babel serves a purpose, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain within this prestigious academy, it is also a conflicting situation where he is serving Britain while  also betraying his homeland.  

As Robin continues his progress within the walls of Babel, he stumbles to find himself caught between Babel and the mysterious Hermes Society. This organization has bent itself on sabotaging the silver-working that allows Britain such ease in their domination and conquering of other nations that cannot stand against their strength and power. As Britain engages in a war with China over silver and opium, Robin faces a difficult decision: can he change such a powerful institution like Babel from within, or must a revolution require violence to achieve its goal? And, if so, what is Robin willing to sacrifice and how far is he willing to go to bring about that reckoning?
For fans of “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt and anything within the Dark Academia genre, “Babel” showcases themes of elite, prestigious societies, revolutions, colonial resistance and the power translation has at the employ of an empire. Plus it’s a standalone, so if you’re looking for a complex, intriguing book that packs a punch all wrapped up in one volume, this is the perfect new release to give you all the dark academia atmosphere that this season brings on.