A boy lies still beside the body of his mother. Her skin is blue and her eyes are open, wet and glassy. It is 1828, and a cholera epidemic has swept through Canton, China.
The boy is the only one left alive in the house and is on the brink of death when a quiet white Englishman brings him to London. There, the young Chinese boy is named Robert Swift and grows up in solitude, trained in English, Latin, ancient Greek and Chinese. For what reason, he does not yet know.
Thus sets up Rebecca F Kuang’s new book Babel, one of the most anticipated releases of the year on BookTok, the reading corner of TikTok that has amassed more than 70bn views.
The #BookTok effect
On the platform, a five-second clip recommending a book has the potential to go viral, affecting sales and bestseller charts worldwide – a phenomenon the Guardian has coined as the BookTok effect, and which Kuang herself describes as “the force that can’t be ignored in publishing anymore”.
Kuang’s previous books, the award-winning Poppy War trilogy, have close to 40m views on their own TikTok hashtag. And for her new book Babel – subtitled Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution – the hype has been brewing for months.
Back in May, Lea from the TikTok account @loverofpages posted an early unboxing video for Babel, captioned: “Welcome to the dark academia book of the year.” It amassed 600,000 views and hundreds of comments, with one user writing: “How am I supposed to wait until August.”
A week before Babel’s US release, the #enterbabel hashtag already had 3.5m views on TikTok (it now has almost 5 million). On release day, Emma from @emmaskies vlogged about shopping for the book, gaining 170,000 viewers.
And on Kuang’s own TikTok page, a video of her signing copies in stores has been watched half a million times.
But the author says she tries not to watch too many video reviews. “Because when authors get their heads into those spaces, it serves to distract,” Kuang says. “So I try to let my readers do their thing, and I do mine.”
The allure of dark academia
What makes a viral BookTok book is a question publishers are no doubt scrambling to answer – but certain tropes do trend. Mixing a unique magic system, the dark academia aesthetic and a diverse ensemble of characters who find family among one another, Babel fits the current BookTok zeitgeist. (The #foundfamily hashtag has almost 80m views, while #darkacademia has amassed 2.7bn.)
The book follows Robin, who was plucked from China to prepare in Britain to study at Babel, Oxford’s school of translation, where foreign languages are a currency and power comes from being able to manipulate them through “silver-working”.
Kuang invents silver-working as the art of turning lost-in-translation words into silver (enchanted silver acts as technology does in our world, powering machinery and revolutionising industries). But there’s a sinister side to this magic: Babel’s work becomes fuel for colonisation, catapulting the British empire to unprecedented power.
At first, Babel is a paradise for Robin. He finds belonging among Ramiz Mirza, Letitia Price and Victoire Desgraves – a group of outsiders also shunned by the white and male Oxford crowd. Dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, they carve out a home. But their knowledge is being used to exploit their motherlands; as tools of Babel, they realise, they are contributing to the wrong side of history.
In defiance, they join the secret Hermes society, dedicated to stealing and relocating Babel’s silver-working to the colonies. But Hermes’ methods turn brutal, too. And when Britain pursues war with China, Robin and his friends must decide what morals they are willing to sacrifice in a bloody revolution against Babel’s colonial agenda.
Shadows of colonialism
Part of Kuang’s inspiration came from her own time studying at Cambridge and Oxford – “being there, thinking strictly about the history of what made a place like this possible”.
“But one of the best things about Oxford is the architecture, the libraries, the sheer beauty of spaces you are allowed to be in,” she says. “[Babel] is a nostalgic and loving rendition of a campus I knew.”
And so its dark academia atmosphere is born – reminiscent of TikTok’s beloved The Secret History by Donna Tartt, though more diverse in its cast. Students’ cloaks sweep cobblestone streets as they shuffle past libraries in the rain towards the tower of Babel pulled from biblical myth.
Although set in the past, the book is infused with modern context, refocusing the history of “great men” towards the colonies they gutted, pillaged and destroyed. Giving agency to the colonised, Kuang demands an answer from the empire – you flourished, but at whose expense?
The book is also a ruthless and meticulously researched critique of institutions like Oxford – which in Babel becomes the heart of Britain’s power – and the way their structures oppress.
“This is something I think a lot of young people struggle with,” Kuang says. “What do you do with the privilege afforded to you?”
On his journey from Canton to London, Robin encounters this knotty, internal tug-of-war that plagues him as he ages over the novel’s five acts, the school his constant opponent. He encounters a Chinese labourer being denied entry on to an English ship, despite holding a valid contract for passage:
He associated that face with his own kind … Guilt twisted in his gut … Should he stir up trouble, then [the crewman] might simply leave him behind onshore as well.
“The tension is between wanting to act ethically … and also just wanting to survive,” Kuang explains. “He has access to a beautiful place. He could continue flying under the radar, keeping his head down.
“I think like any young person, I am increasingly interested about exisiting in a world of capitalism and understanding all the extractive violence necessary to sustain the kind of lifestyles that we live, but without really knowing what to do about it.”
So she leaves a final question, this time for her readers. Can there be morality and necessity in violence?
Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by Rebecca F Kuang is out now