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R.F. Kuang: Babel (Harper Voyager) 4 stars

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. 1828. Robin Swift, …

A postcolonial, antiracist Harry Potter

4 stars

Kuang's story surprises. This coming-of-age (and coming-of-revolution) story introduces us to a world where the the 19th-century Industrial Revolution is made possible not by steam and worker oppression but by the magical powers of translation and colonial exploitation. The experiences of the protagonist, a Cantonese boy that adopts the English name Robin Swift, lead us to an imagined Oxford that is as intriguing as Hogwarts but that has sins that Kuang not only does not whitewash, but makes the centerpiece of her novel. The historical notes and especially the etymological explanations are fascinating, if occasionally pedantic. Once you get your head around this world and how it works, you'll want to hang on to the end to see how a postcolonial critique during the height of the British Empire can possibly turn out.