From the Stacks: Historical fantasy grapples with cholera epidemic, opium wars

"Babel: Or the Neccessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators Revolution" by R.F. Kuang. MRRL/News Tribune

In "Babel: Or the Neccessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution" by R.F. Kuang, preteen Robin finds himself rescued from the cholera epidemic in Canton by Oxford Professor Lovell. Lovell could have rescued the rest of Robin's household, including the tutor he had hired to teach English to Robin, but didn't bother.

Lovell offers to bring Robin back to England, providing room and board, on the condition that Robin diligently applies himself to study Latin, Greek and Mandarin.

Eventually, Robin will take the entrance exam to get into Oxford's esteemed Royal Institute of Translation, also referred to as Babel. There he will be trained in the arcane arts of magic and linguistics which the British use to extract wealth from other countries.

I loved so many things about this book. If you like language and word origins, this book is liberally sprinkled with fascinating information concerning etymology and linguistics. I enjoyed learning about historical issues of the times (1830s). The only thing I knew of Luddites was they were silly people afraid of modernizing. Yet here the textile workers are portrayed as pragmatic individuals who turned to violence in order to feed their families, necessitating the use of 12,000 soldiers to quell this rebellion.

The opium wars were another issue addressed. I knew the British military had forced China to import opium. I didn't realize how resistant China was to this trade and how brutally punitive the British reacted after China destroyed several caches of this illegal drug Britain had smuggled inside their country. It was interesting to hear the antagonists invoking the rhetoric of free trade über alles to justify their immoral actions. I knew Imperialism to be problematic, but this gave me a more layered grasp of how it works.

I also really enjoyed the magical system of silver bars in Babel. Silver bars are imprinted with two words from different languages, resulting in a magical effect. For example, carriages could race much faster and more safely than normal if the carriage had a silver bar containing the etched word "speed" along with the Latin word from which it was derived,"spes" (whose meaning also relates to hope and success). While not a fast-paced book, this was a really fun read.

Qhyrrae Michaelieu facilitates the twice-monthly Ukulele Jam Session at the library in addition to other duties as the Adult Services Manager.