Man oh man do people dislike this book! And when they do, they seem to dislike it for all sorts of suspicious reasons. Oh, white/western person, do you think the main characters in this book, the majority of whom are from colonies, spend a little bit too much time griping about the evils of the British colonial empire? Well then, boy do I have some news that’s going to REALLY disturb you about non-fictional humans in the real world who were once subjugated by the IRL British empire.
How to explain…Kuang has created one of those rare unicorns, a standalone fantasy series in an alt-UK where magic is real and based on linguistic facility and translation ability. Basically, by knowing the subtle differences in definition between two words in two different languages that ostensibly mean the same thing, you can harness the lost meaning, capture it in silver, and use it to power/run your world. I wish I could remember a single example to illustrate, but I suppose you’ll have to read the book yourself!
This book has a lot in common with some others I’ve read this year—The Golden Enclaves or Ninth House—in that it asks “can you build a just system on the backs of injustice” and then immediately answers itself with a resounding NO. It’s a fantasy, of course, because where else could you have the ability to assess and take down the British empire from the center of Oxford, using the power of linguistics and an alliance between the common working laborer and the exploited colonial class?
So for the avoidance of doubt, Kuang has taken the question and given the answer and written a scathing, angry screed set in the heyday of the British Empire. You might be uncomfortable reading this, as so many others seem to be, and maybe you should question why you are. You might find this book a tad obvious in its messaging—how many times does Robin need to revisit his confusion as to whether he’s okay with suckling at the teat of HRM’s benevolence—but such is the reality of many people who grow up in the very system that oppresses them. Better one reminder more than a subtle message that’s lost, maybe, when the message is so clear.
Because, honestly? I’m a pseudo-supporter, a [mini-Letty] despite being myself descendent of a society pillaged by the British. I’m here now, enjoying the largess that came from the wealth of my country and the backs of the enslaved. I’m okay with building a system on top of the one we have now. For everyone who thinks this book isn’t explicit enough…I give you me, the reader, who read it and wrote this review and is nonetheless content to take the easy road.