The Philosopher’s Flight
by Tom Miller
Published: Feb 2018
World War I rages in Europe and teen Robert Weekes is stuck at home in rural Montana, desperate to join the war efforts. He’s dreamed of enlisting in the elite Rescue & Evac squad for as long as he can remember, but there are more than a few hurdles in his path. He’d need to become an expert empirical philosopher, or sigilrist: a practitioner well-versed in the art of drawing sigils to manipulate physical forces and matter (think magic without wands). Even though his tough-as-nails war-hero mother has taught him the basics, this cryptic field of study is so heavily dominated by women that men are rarely, if ever, train professionally. His talents eventually land him a university scholarship, but it’s only the beginning of the trials and tribulations he must face to pursue his dream.
The Philosopher’s Flight is a fun light read that pairs plausible alchemy with civil rights activism and rolls it all into an adventurous coming of age tale. Though it reads like a YA novel, it doesn’t shy away from the darkness and violence that accompanies systemic oppression. I really enjoyed the “gender-flip” here– it’s a complex and nuanced reversal of the script. Even though women seem to have more of an aptitude for sigilry it certainly doesn’t translate into total control over society. They are respected in some spheres and denounced in others, existing in a space somewhere between mutants in the X-Men Universe and the “witches” on trial in Salem. As an added dimension we get a quick glimpse into the dynamics of race relations in early 1900’s America, but for the most part this remains unexplored.
Fans of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality will appreciate the effort Miller makes to ground empirical philosophy in science. The magical forces in the story are mysterious but not impenetrable (we get at least one character trying to decipher how the packets of magic energy travel in space). Plus with all the focus on rescue missions and medical applications of sigils, it’s really no surprise the author is an EMT turned ER Doctor (turned novelist!).
In all honesty, I wasn’t hooked until about three-fourths of the way through when suddenly, I couldn’t put it down. The first parts build up the slow simmering of tension and context until finally it all explodes into a rolling boil of drama that leaves you wanting more. According to this interview with author Tom Miller (which also details how his observations of subtle sexism as an EMT helped inform the novel) it’s going to be a five part series. So that’s exciting. Can’t wait to see how this alternate-history world progresses. If stalking the webiste of the publisher is any indication, we may have “Philosopher’s War” to look forward to (though Goodreads seems to indicate this is just an outdated alternate title/cover for Flight).
// I received The Philosopher’s Flight as part of my subscription to Book of the Month