Book Review: The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 13, 2018)
Length: 432 pages
Author Information: Website
The Philosopher’s Flight might be my first genuine surprise of 2018. Backed by a fascinating premise that blends together historical fiction and fantasy, this novel held my attention captive from beginning to end. Set in an alternate World-War-I-era America, at the core of this tale is “magical science”, also known as empirical philosophy, a system of magic that uses the artform of “sigilry” to perform amazing feats like summoning the wind, sculpting clouds of smoke, teleporting from one place to another, or even defying gravity.
Told in the form of a memoir, the book stars protagonist Robert Weekes who recounts his time as a young man at Radcliffe College studying to pursue his dream of flying Rescue and Evacuation for the US Sigilry Corps. But here’s the twist: in this world, empirical philosophy is a field dominated by women. The greater affinity for magic in the female sex means that they are stronger and more powerful philosophers, which also makes them better conditioned to become flyers—a discipline that few men can master. Robert, however, has flying in his blood. His mother, the indomitable Major Emmeline Weekes is his inspiration and role model, a war hero who has served many years as part of the elite all-women R&E team saving countless lives on the battlefield. Determined to follow in her footsteps, Robert decides to apply to Radcliffe, becoming one of only three men enrolled in the school.
And here’s where the story gets interesting. Few things in this book unfold the way you’d expect, despite the frosty reception Robert finds on his first day. Facing strong pushback from some of his professors and fellow students who believe he doesn’t belong, our protagonist must work twice as hard to prove his worth and be accepted in a role that’s traditionally been closed to men. How dicey, I initially thought, to have a story centered around a male protagonist who must struggle against gender discrimination, considering the current feminist movement and how these days books actually tend to feature the opposite scenario. And yet, at the same time I found it to be a refreshing change, not to mention the gender-flip was executed in a thoughtful way that treats women with respect and reverence. With the exception of the Trenchers (more on them later), the world generally views empirical philosophy as a gift—and women, as the wielders of that wonderful and magical power, are held in high esteem. They are America’s greatest heroes and legends that girls (and boys like Robert) look up to and dream they can become.
However, the author also does not patronize his readers by glossing over the situation. Every slice of the population will have its bad eggs, and Robert encounters his fair share of prejudice, intolerance, and injustice from some of the women at Radcliffe, and some social norms are just so ingrained that they are hard to break. In addition, there are the aforementioned Trenchers, a radical group that opposes everything related to empirical philosophy (hence many of their messages are also anti-women) and they aren’t above resorting to violent means to achieve their ends. Among these tactics is a hit list targeting well-known philosophers like Robert’s mother Emmeline Weekes and his girlfriend Danielle Hardin for assassination. Ultimately, it’s the Trenchers who are the main antagonists of this book, whom Robert works tirelessly and passionately with his fellow Radcliffe students to oppose.
This is a multi-faceted story with lots of positive messages about fighting for change, serving your fellow citizens, doing good for the world, and reaching for your dreams—all done in an unconventional yet sympathetic way. It’s also a tough book to categorize, because of its many themes. At its heart The Philosopher’s Flight is a coming-of-age new adult tale about growing up, which also has elements like sweet romance (experiencing first love), pulse-pounding action (training to perform dangerous and daring aerial maneuvers), light-hearted humor (making lifelong friendships), as well as thrilling adventure (competing in school spirit events and flying contests). All this is set before an alternate historical fantasy backdrop that feels genuine and well-realized. The college setting also makes me think this would be great for readers looking for a more serious and mature “magic school” story—think Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, except a lot more fun and not as soul-suckingly depressing (not to mention with decidedly more likable characters).
It is my hope that this book, like its protagonist, will reach new heights because it is certainly deserving of all the praise. Tom Miller has written a complex and deeply nuanced debut that examines the way lives can be shaped by social beliefs and experiences, but it is also a wild tale full of warmth and fun. I was glad to learn that The Philosopher’s Flight is the first book of a new series, because I am absolutely on board for more.