What is this, the book of a thousand subtitles? I wanted to justify my initial hype, and see the book listed as “Babel: An Arcane History”, whereas I remember it as “Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution”. Which, admittedly, is at least one subtitle too many, but you can also see how I’d be hella into that. Several other people I know were into the idea too, so we ended up doing an async buddy read over at Storygraph, which by the way has an excellent buddy read system.
I was so, so disappointed. I haven’t been this disappointed in a book in such a long time. It took me about 70% into the book to feel somewhat engaged, and that dropped off immediately again when the widely telegraphed plot twist happened. I don’t even want to go into it too much, so here is a list of things I liked:
- “He had just learned about Platonic forms, and was convinced scones were the Platonic ideal of bread.” – This is adorable, and the book contains several cute sentences. (Look, yes, I’m trying to be nice here)
- Mood turnover is fast and well done. We go from domestic violence to meeting Ramy (and later the rest of the gang, but it’s Ramy who counts) in just a few pages.
- There’s some very open, clear foreshadowing that I thought was paced well, eg. By the time they had finished their tea, they were almost in love with each other […] The days had not yet come when Ramy wore Victoire’s sloppily knitted scarves with pride. […] Why had they refused to see the myriad ways they could hurt each other?
- Generally depicting friendships as the central defining feature of their lives, too. Group dynamics are hard, and this book made them work at least some of the time. (Still trying to be nice)
- “Which language do you dream/think in” is genuinely a good characterisation, shame it’s wasted
- I do like that Robin is not a hero. He’s a fucking coward, and so are we all when facing The System, and pointing that out is good.
- An etymology-based magic system that rests on connections and divergences is a super cool idea. Some of the etymology tidbits were cool too (and I suppose I shouldn’t complain about knowing most of them already).
Here are my complaints:
- The preface is a huge, huge defensive exercise in “I promise I know my Oxford” and felt petty and insecure – as a preface. I’m all for the nerd research notes, but they belong in an appendix, not telling me upfront what we’ll be seeing in Oxford!
- The whole “dreaming/thinking in a different language” is depicted so clinically and abstract. Compare this to A Memory Called Empire that makes you feel what it means to not be at home in any culture or language because you stand in between!
- There is quite some time spent on building the protagonist’s group and characterisation, and somehow, despite that, the characters remained flat and lifeless outside of their scenes. Maybe that was just because I wasn’t into the book.
- Oblivious protagonists are the worst. The fact that Anthony isn’t dead is not just telegraphed, it’s all but YELLED at the reader, and the protagonist misses like three increasingly obvious clues. Please, we readers are not that desparate to be superior and clever.
- Letty having a terminal case of protagonist syndrome, completely unable to think things from other people’s perspective – I liked that at first. I thought it was a neat characterisation, if heavy-handed. I desperately hoped that I wasn’t right about her character arc, because it would be cheap, and obvious, and surely nobody would write a twist like that. Alas. Also everybody else’s reaction was peak stupidity and I hated it.
- And here is the big one: I felt moralised at. Nonstop. The book was so busy being righteous and making sure that every reader Understands The Metaphore and how it Applies Today Too and that there is good and bad and the books has an answer and an explanation for everything (and it’ll make sure we know it! God forbid the reader could have to use their own brain) … man, I hated Narnia for moralising too much when I was twelve. Twelve! I have not gotten more patient.
Grumpy old man, signing off.
This book is part of the 2022 Backlog Incident.