The reviews for this book have been so very mixed – people either really loved it (best book of the year!) or were really frustrated by it. I think a key distinction in the tone of reviews boils down to how much science fiction you were looking for when you cracked open these ambitious pages. If your heart is more invested in the science fiction / fantasy elements, you’re likely to be disappointed by this novel that chooses to focus much more on characters than the actual impact of magic in this invented history. The magic here is truly incidental to the plot – the idea is that silver is somehow able to harness the power of translation, producing magical effects that range from adorable (generating alarm clocks that sound like birds chirping, or enhancing the smell of flowers), to functional (railroads move faster when tracks are lined with silver) to downright deadly (it’s basically possible to etch Avada Kedavra into silver). Rather than spending time on how this comes to be, the characters mention in passing that it simply HAS BEEN for centuries. Despite it’s intrigue, it’s really just one part of an ever changing landscape that the British Empire would like to control. Most other elements of history as we know them remain more or less intact (the author’s note sort of preemptively cuts off any quibbles about the alterations in history in this work of fiction).
For me, this was not a problem. I love exploring characters over function in a society. I would much prefer we spend time with our four students in this dark-academia tale, rather than explore the ways that a society like this might be different from ours. In fact, I enjoyed that there was so much of the familiar in this novel that is set in the 1830s in Oxford, and a bit in London. As mentioned by the publisher and other reviewers (thanks, Emmalita, for your awesome review!) this book is in conversation with The Secret History and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – I have only read the former, not the latter (but I did really love Piranesi last year) so I’m only guessing about some of those connections, but I would say that those two novels do encapsulate big elements of this book. Much like The Secret History, or Tana French’s excellent The Likeness, part of the story is about the love of four friends in college (and, like both of those books, there are sexual subtexts that aren’t always fully explored but play a role in the devastating events, like sexual subtext is wont to do).
The novel begins when our protagonist (the perspective of the bulk of the novel) lays in his family home in Canton, near death – his family has perished from illness, and having just watched his mother die he really hasn’t much hope he will survive. In walks Professor Lovell, who heals him mysteriously with a bar of silver. His health restored, he realizes that this strange white man must have some connection to his English caretaker who lived with him family (however out of place that might have seemed for a poor Chinese family to employ an English nanny). He is encouraged to take on a new name, and selects Robin Swift for himself, after the British fairy tales he has enjoyed reading. Professor Lovell transports Robin to London, where he looks after his education and provides for his needs – a situation that Robin finds mystifying at first, but it soon becomes clear that Professor Lovell has academic intentions for Robin. He install him at Oxford to work at Babel, a fictional tower whose purpose is to create the magical translation mentioned above. This magic only works when people are fully fluent – as in, they can dream in multiple languages. Only then can they grasp the meaning of the translated words – and those subtle differences are where the magic happens.
At Oxford, Robin is enchanted by the academic paradise – and for the first time in his life, he has friends. Ramy, Victoire and Letty form his cohort, and together they endure the rigor of college life. On top of being students at a challenging university in a challenging field, they are also all four different from others at the University – Robin, Ramy and Victoire are not white, and Letty and Victoire are women at a University in the 1830s. Their status as students and outsiders cements their relationships, although the subtle differences in their levels of oppression manifest themselves (occasionally to devastating results). Robin slowly learns more about his own background, and the goals of the British Empire – and eventually, he must confront his own role in the horror of living in a colonial world. The whole book comes together in a powerful ending that will leave you with a bit of a book hangover.
I have seen a lot of talk about the quality of the writing in this book (in my opinion, it was quite well written – but I didn’t enjoy the footnotes and found the font of the asterisk to be difficult to spot with so much text). I’ve seen some discussion about the lack of fantasy elements (see above – not much of a problem for me, I prefer a more literary sci-fi anyway). But I haven’t seen a whole lot of people talking about the ideas espoused here – namely, the importance of violence in revolution. This seems so timely to me – how much violence, to what degree, when do we use it, who deserves to wield it – and one of the things that disappointed me about this novel was getting to the end, with all of its build up – and finally getting to really explode these ideas wide open – and then … I suppose the idea is to carry that into the real world, with us. Well, if that’s the case, let’s not tarry. I’d love to see more discussions about that.