Tag Archives: Adult Fiction

Babel: An Arcane History

Babel (full subtitle: Or, the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution) by R.F. Kuang is a big, bold, incredible conundrum of a novel. Anything clocking in at over 500 pages is already going to be asking a lot from its readers. And that title? Music to my history nerd ears (eyes?), but what a mouthful! From the jump, Kuang is telegraphing what you’re about to sink into, and that is a dense, at times challenging, historical epic. Babel follows Robin Swift as he’s taken from his home in Canton to be raised in England, priming him for a lucrative career in Oxford’s translation department. But things aren’t all what they seem, and Robin quickly gets caught up in an underground, anticolonial movement called the Hermes Society.  

This book is marketed as a fantasy, but it’s light on the magic. In this version of Industrial Revolution era Britain, the gilded Oxford University has a Royal Institute of Translation (I googled: not a real thing) based out of a tower aptly named Babel. This institute works by translating and inscribing words into enchanted silver bars, which function like a source of energy for their owners. So, countries that can afford more silver bars gain more power. Kuang doesn’t imagine much of an alternate history here; Britain is the dominant force in the silver trade and thus has the strongest colonial power—just like real life. Truthfully, not much is different than actual British trade history. I know some readers were frustrated by that, but it doesn’t bother me. Just approach the novel like historical fiction with some slight fantasy elements, and that should mitigate any disappointment. 

Rather than the more typical elements of fantasy fiction, the magic in this world is the act of translation itself. This might be where reader reactions diverge. Kuang, a scholar through and through (she currently has two Masters, one each from Oxford and Cambridge, and a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature from Yale) is not shy about loading the text with thorough explorations of linguistics and the history of language. Your mileage may vary on how interesting this is; as someone who minored in linguistics, I am always happy to see the word “Proto-Indo-European” appear in the wild. Give me all the etymologies! 

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November Reading Challenge

November Reading Challenge: Read A Book by an LGBTQIA2S+ Author

Our reading challenge for November is to read a book by an author who identifies as LGBTQIA2S+. Whether you’re reading outside your identity or within it, it’s always a good time to read books from marginalized voices. But lately it seems particularly apropos to highlight queer authors (I’ll use that as an umbrella term for simplicity’s sake). It’s hard not to be concerned about the storm brewing below our border; book bans (or more accurately, attempts at them) are on the rise, the target of which is largely books with queer themes (and books that deal with race—doubly so if a book contains both, such as George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue). PEN America compiled a detailed report earlier this year investigating these attempts at censorship, for those who would like to learn more. Across the pond we’ve also seen an alarming uptick in transphobic rhetoric, a sort of transphobe-mania gripping the UK, famously spurred on by She Who Must Not Be Named.  

Books can be tools for exploring the human condition, tools for advocacy and for empathy, for validation and support—and also, just for fun. In June, Vogue asked “Is this the golden age of queer literature?” While the answer is basically “not really”, it’s still certainly a better literary landscape than in the past. Queer authors have always existed in all genres, though not as openly (or as mainstream) as today. We’ll go over some of these genres paired with some recommendations! 

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Modern Myths

Modern Myths

The cover of The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

I have always been fascinated by mythology and, to a lesser extent, the religions surrounding it. Or that created the myths in the first place. Having been raised religious only to eschew that way of life as I get older, as many people in my generation have, I still remember the stories that are part of the mythos of Catholicism*1: God creating the world in seven days*2, Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, The Book of Revelation, and others. These are shared archetypical stories transcending cultures, even if details differ. The Creation Myth*3The Ark*4Divine Intervention*5, and The End of the World as We Know It*6 link with the stories mentioned. With these tales being archetypical, it’s only natural that they get repackaged and repurposed as time passes. Sometimes they’re brought into modern times but maintain the same message or ideas. Other times authors take them in a different direction or focus on characters that were sidelined in the original tale, which is particularly common with female characters. These rewrites can be serioussatiricalfeministdrive home An Aesop*7, or just stories that use mythology as a jumping-off point for something otherwise original.

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