R.F. Kuang’s novel Babel is set in alternative 1930s Oxford, and tells the story of Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan studying at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arcanalogy.
Kuang has crafted a richly imagined magical world, with a complex and innovative magic system at its core.
In this blog, I’ll take a closer look at how Kuang’s magic system works and what makes it so compelling.
Lost in Translation
At the heart of Kuang’s magic is the idea of translation.
Magicians, known as Babelites, can translate physical matter into different forms using magical runes.
For example, Robin Swift has the ability to translate water into different states like ice, steam, or vapour. A magician can also change quantities, turning a single drop into an enormous wave.
Kuang draws inspiration from linguistic translation, with magic relying on interpreting and transforming symbols.
The Magic of Language
The magic requires intense focus and mental willpower.
Kuang writes that magic “is a state of mind. It requires immaculate concentration. You must gather all your mental energies to a single needle point, blocking out all distractions.”
This need for perfect concentration makes the magic dangerous and physically taxing.
Overuse can lead to headaches, nosebleeds, and even permanent damage.
Experiments in Meaning
At the Royal Academy, students study ancient runic languages to expand their magical vocabulary and precision.
However, Kuang’s system also allows creativity and improvisation.
Experienced mages can combine runes in innovative ways to produce new effects.
The very best can even create original runes, expanding the boundaries of magic.
Magic and Culture
An interesting aspect of Kuang’s system is that different cultures use magic differently.
In the East, magic developed from art and music into a pursuit of aesthetic perfection.
By contrast, Western magic focussed on innovation, power, and control over nature.
These cultural splits cause tensions between Eastern and Western Babelites.
The Reality of Words
A major theme is the relationship between language and reality.
The power to alter reality through language evokes thought-provoking questions.
When is it right to wield that power?
Can words change how communities perceive the world?
Should anyone have such an ability?
Kuang explores language’s immense power through the lens of magic.
A System of Social Commentary
Overall, Kuang has woven magic seamlessly into Babel’s reality.
With its linguistic base, cultural dimensions, and precarious physical impacts, this innovative system feels fundamentally believable.
The magic opens up thought-provoking ideas while also creating an atmosphere of wonder.
R.F. Kuang has once again proven herself one of fantasy’s most skilled world-builders and storytellers.