Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: Standalone
Released: 2022-08-23
Publisher: Harper Voyager

There’s a lot wrong with this book. I’m still giving it 5 stars, but let me start with the problems:

The first 50% to 60% of the book is bloated to being borderline unreadable. Honestly, you could probably skip 3/4 of every page in the first half and lose nothing. There’s a lot of “school days friendship” minutiae that lends nothing to the plot while still managing to leave the characters fairly undeveloped.

I have two college degrees and I read research papers for fun. This book tries way too hard to uphold an “academic” aesthetic with constant references to “academic” material. Then, in the same breath, it seems to say the same readers it expects to appreciate all these literary references aren’t smart enough to pick up on the themes of colonialism and oppression unless they’re lambasted with them for 300+ pages before anything interesting happens.

That being said, this IS a story about colonialism and oppression. It does deliver its message that often, those who oppress by violence can only ever be stopped by experiencing violence in return. It’s a poignant story, it has a powerful ending, and yes, this alternate fantasy history does come full circle and close out the story well in the end.

So I’m giving it five stars for the story it told, even if the execution was almost painful at times. I actually nearly dropped this book in the DNF pile because it was such a slog, and I only pushed through because I refused to believe that a book over 500 pages had nothing to offer. Unfortunately, most of what it had to offer was in the last pages of the book.

I regularly read novels of this length with no problem, and I actually like academic and literary references, but this felt more like “look at all the things these kids know about, they’re SO smart” than anything that had any real bearing on the story. In fact, the story “Babel” tells could easily be condensed down to around 300 pages, and would probably deliver a harder hit if it was. It’s been five months since I bought and read this book. To this day, the overall themes and story still come back to me. But even as I write this, I can’t remember a single character’s name, more than three main events, or pretty much any of the first half of the book.

The vast majority of it is just forgettable, even if the deeper concepts resonate. I do suggest reading this book…but I also wholeheartedly encourage anyone feeling like it’s going to slow to just go ahead and skip a handful of pages at a time. As long as you keep up with the overarching plot (which is actually very short) you won’t miss too much.

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