Best Beach Reads

This brilliant historical fantasy takes place in an alternative Victorian-era Oxford. Silver bars can be activated through translation to do magical tasks, from the mundane (heating tea) to the essential (holding up a bridge). Because of the nature of silversmithing, people who can speak multiple languages are crucial, especially less common languages in England. To that end, a professor from Babel — Oxford’s translation tower and the world center of silver working — essentially steals Chinese children with promising language skills and whisks them away to England. Robin Swift, the protagonist, is one such child. He spends his childhood learning languages, and if he tarries he faces the professor’s wrath. When he arrives at Oxford to begin classes, he befriends other outsiders like him: charismatic Rami, who’s originally from India and quickly becomes Robin’s best friend, brilliant and principled Victoire, who’s originally from Haiti, and stubborn Letty, a white woman born to wealth but who refuses to be married off by her father. These four become everything to one another, but they cannot escape Babel’s fractious, colonialist politics. Kuang deftly explores the period and its legacy of racism and colonialism while also fully committing to Robin’s character arc. It’s an impressive, emotional read. —Margaret Kingsbury

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