I suppose today’s as good a day as any to review a couple of brutal fantasy novels. One is an historical fantasy that really didn’t shy away from anything. The other felt like it upped the ante, jumping into a brutal, painful, unforgiving story right away.
Babel by R.F. Kuang
Title: Babel | Author: R.F. Kuang | Publisher: Harper Voyager | Publication date: August 23, 2022 | Genre: Historical Fantasy
From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire.
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.
Babel is the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.
For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…
Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?
One Sentence Summary: Robin, taken from China as a child to be trained as a translator, is given the world when he arrives to learn at Oxford’s Babel institute, but there’s more lurking under the surface and a shadowy society that could use his help at the cost of everything he’s known.
Babel is an historical fantasy that looks at what if Oxford had a translation institute and what if words in all languages had magic if paired with certain other words. It looks at languages and words in an historical context where foreigners in England were not regarded as fully human, and yet the English relied on every other foreign language to power their own lives and successes. This is a story of colonization through the eyes of the colonized, a story of racism and the power of languages, a story of friendship tenuously held, a story of classism and the effects of technological advancements at both ends of society, a story of how white people have relied on people of color to make their worlds run.
It’s impressive everything that went into Babel, all of the research and multitudes of languages used to tell this story. There’s a lot of history, but sometimes, especially at the beginning, it felt more like info dumping than a deft weaving of history into the fabric of the story. But it does a brilliant job of putting the story into context, of pulling back the veil and revealing what life might really have been like for people of color. As a person of color myself, I was particularly pleased to see just how much white people relied on everything foreign to them just to power their lives and live comfortably. Babel is a fascinating, if sometimes brutal, commentary on race and class, not shying away from the things that might make one squirm. It’s heartbreaking at times, but there’s also a rebellion against it all housed in these pages. Babel and the secretive Hermes Society are inextricably bound together, furthering the divide between the English and the non-English. I was particularly amused by the footnotes that helped explain translations and events, both historical and created for the purposes of this story. Full of snark and sarcasm and interesting tales, I found them to be an ingenious way to explain things without interrupting the flow of the prose. It made the writing feel that much more elegant as the book went on.
Babel tells the story of a young man named Robin. Brought to England from China after the death of his family, he really didn’t have any choice. Raised by one Professor Lovell, Robin was groomed for Babel, groomed to support the country intent on taking over his own. The older he grows, the more he’s thrust into having to take the side of those different like him or England, of feeling part of and simultaneously separate from his motherland. Babel very much felt like a narrative of a young man’s life, perhaps reminiscent of an English classic novel, with a bit of Harry Potter woven in with the magical school atmosphere. I liked Robin. He didn’t have many choices, but he put his head down and tried to make the best life he could in a world that inevitably became home, no matter how different and foreign his new home deemed him. But, somewhere in the middle of the story, it felt like a switch as flipped and I had a hard time finding the Robin I had so gotten to know, so the last third, while much more action-packed and really containing a fascinating story, kind of threw me.
But for all the brilliance thrown into this book, as impressive as I found it, it’s not quite as dry as I expected based on other reviews, and yet I was relieved when the story finally ended. Not because it was uncomfortable or heartbreaking or revealing things I didn’t already know that I had to come to terms with, but because the story felt a little cumbersome and I felt it took a bit of a windy road to get there. It felt like two halves of a whole that were not perfectly stitched together. I had a hard time figuring out what this was supposed to be about as it mostly felt like a commentary on society. Simply out, Babel was not my cup of tea, but I cannot ignore the massive amount of work that went into this and the brilliance of the story, themes, and prose.
Rating: 4 cups of tea
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
Title: The Spear Cuts Through Water | Author: Simon Jimenez | Publisher: Del Rey | Publication date: August 30, 2022 | Genre: Fantasy
The people suffer under the centuries-long rule of the Moon Throne. The royal family—the despotic emperor and his monstrous sons, the Three Terrors—hold the countryside in their choking grip. They bleed the land and oppress the citizens with the frightful powers they inherited from the god locked under their palace.
But that god cannot be contained forever.
With the aid of Jun, a guard broken by his guilt-stricken past, and Keema, an outcast fighting for his future, the god escapes from her royal captivity and flees from her own children, the triplet Terrors who would drag her back to her unholy prison. And so it is that she embarks with her young companions on a five-day pilgrimage in search of freedom—and a way to end the Moon Throne forever. The journey ahead will be more dangerous than any of them could have imagined.
Both a sweeping adventure story and an intimate exploration of identity, legacy, and belonging, The Spear Cuts Through Water is an ambitious and profound saga that will transport and transform you—and is like nothing you’ve ever read before.
One Sentence Summary: When a goddess is freed from her prison after a great deal of bloodshed, it’s up to two young men to safely shepherd her across the country and deliver a rebellion to fix her wrongs.
The Spear Cuts Through Water is a love story wrapped up in a brutal, unforgiving story of a goddess seeking to redeem herself and save the world she helped break. There’s a great deal of this world’s history and mythology woven into the story, painting a brutal, sometimes terrifying world. But, oddly, enough, it’s told in a strange theater to you, the reader who gets to become a character in this book, a story that happened so far in the past that the stories hold hardly any sway anymore, making the story feel a step removed. This was a bit of a bizarre book for me, in that it was so hard to figure out what was going on with all the switching POVs and time lines, and yet I could not look away.
The Spear Cuts Through Water presents a unique and sometimes discombobulating reading experience. There are multiple time lines from past to present and everything in between, spanning untold years and generations. It was difficult to pick up whether a section was the story of a person (AKA you) in the general present who is taken to the Inverted Theater to view a staging of a story from the far past, the far past itself starring broken warrior Jun and a one armed outcast named Keema shepherding a goddess across the country, or the general near future in which the person in the present (you) have lost all your siblings to the winds and are yet stuck in the family home. Then there’s the multiple POVs, ranging from Jun and Keema to you and even to the goddess herself. There really isn’t anything to signify a transition in any way, so it’s up the reader’s brain to make the adjustment and catch up, making for a difficult reading experience.
And yet I found the story itself so compelling I couldn’t put it down. My attention was immediately arrested by Jun and Keema, though the story told in second person felt more invasive than anything else. The goddess is not an easy deity to travel with, but, in her own strange way, she has a heart, even if she’ll do anything to ensure she can redeem herself and save her world. I really felt for Jun and Keema with everything they were put through for her sake. But they did it with willing souls, believing in something greater, and finding their own story together along the way. Their love story was easy to see a mile away, but much more difficult for them to see for themselves. They really felt like two halves of a whole, worming their way into each other’s heart as they journey together and endure so many trials and tribulations. I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. The story told in second person was neatly woven through the story of Jun and Keema, but, even weeks after finishing this book, I still can’t figure out a purpose. I was not invested in it and really could care less about it. All it really did was bring me out of the story I was most invested in, and I have no idea why it was woven in. I liked that it made me feel like I was brought into the story, but the two time lines are so distant that I had a hard time reconciling the two. Still, I have to commend Jimenez for working in that second person POV as well as he did.
As confused as I was by so much of this book, I still found myself really appreciating the strong filial themes in this book. While there is a very lovely love story, the relationships that are most at the forefront are that between fathers and sons and mothers and sons. It’s really focused on family, one family in particular, and the lengths they’ll go to in order to preserve their lives and lines or to break the world enough for something new and less corrupt to be born out of it. I loved how these families, these relationships, were so complex and complicated, how so many parents and children had to make difficult decisions even as their hearts wept.
The Spear Cuts Through Water is ambitious, and I’m not sure I fully understood it and what it was trying to say and do, but I quickly found myself fully committed to this book and story. It’s absolutely brutal, painful, and unforgiving. The world is vast and dangerous with so many bad and terrible things lurking around the bend. But there’s still that love story offering a bit of softness and some much needed heart.
Rating: 4 cups of tea
Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for review copies. All opinions expressed are my own.
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