Book Review: The Philosopher’s War 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: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 2 of The Philosophers
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 16, 2019)
Length: 416 pages
Author Information: Website
Tom Miller’s debut The Philosopher’s Flight was one of the best gems I found in 2018 and in my opinion it’s still tragically under-rated and under-read. Somehow it flew under a lot of radars, but after the brilliance that was this sequel, you can bet I’ll be jumping up and down, telling everyone about this series every chance I get. My God, this book! I can’t remember the last time I read something that affected my emotions so strongly and unraveled them to such a deep level. Needless to say, not only did The Philosopher’s War live up to every expectation set by the first book, it surpassed them in many ways as well. It’s now at the top for my favorite novel of the year.
But because having a good understanding of the main character’s background and being familiar with the world-building is so important, I definitely wouldn’t advise tackling this book without having read the previous one first. To recap, the series takes place during World War I, following protagonist Robert Weekes AKA Robert Canderelli, the first man to be allowed to join the US Sigilry Corps’s Rescue and Evacuation service, an all-women elite team of flying medics. In this world, there exists a magic system termed “philosophy”, which gifted individuals use with sigil drawing to perform all kinds of amazing feats like teleportation, flight, and crafting a myriad of incredible objects from smoke. For reasons unknown, however, women tend to have a much stronger affinity for philosophy, beating out their male counterparts by far. Not surprisingly, this means philosophical fields are dominated by women, and in the face of this bizarre twist on gender roles, men like Robert had to work twice as hard to prove himself and fight the discrimination against him in order to pursue his dreams of flying for R&E.
Now he is about to meet an even greater challenge, as he prepares to be shipped off to France to help in the Great War. Because its effects would be so powerful and devastating, use of philosophy in war is strictly regulated by international conventions. No army is allowed to use it in the field, except in disaster relief and in rescuing and evacuating the wounded, which suits Robert just fine. Ever since he was a child, he has always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his heroines to become a Sigilwoman, serving his country and saving lives. But once in the Corps, all his romantic notions of heroism and bravery are dispelled as Robert finds himself in way over his head, surrounded by the danger, chaos, and death on the front lines. The only comfort he finds is in the rare messages he is able to receive from his girlfriend, the legendary transporter Danielle Hardin, or in the company of his sister flyers, who support him as much as they rag on him. However, as the weeks wear on and the Germans become more desperate, fears arise that the enemy will break with international law by using sigilry and smokecarving to develop a deadly chemical weapon. Fortunately, Robert’s commander, the unflappable General Blandings has a plan in place, and she’s hoping to recruit him for a key role in her group of spies, rebels, and misfits.
Much like its predecessor, few things in The Philospher’s War will unfold the way you’d expect. For the most part too, it takes on a completely different tone than the first book and focuses on a new conflict. Still, there are some familiar themes, mostly surrounding Robert’s struggles of trying to prove he can do the job just as well as any woman, though very quickly he realizes that things on the front lines are very different than they were at Radcliffe College. For one thing, the women of Second Division could care less about his pride or private hang ups, as long as they can count on him when it really matters. Because no matter what, you always stand with the women next to you.
And this is why I loved this book. It’s a fascinating mix of history and fantasy, but it reads like WWI fiction. The narrative style reminds me very much of the epicness of the WWII drama Band of Brothers, except with all female characters, but told from the perspective of a man, who is also “one of the girls.” Again, the situation makes for interesting dynamics. Robert’s history books are filled with stories of female heroes and their achievements, but despite having almost all the philosophical power in their world, women still have to fight for their place in a society where men have a lot of authority. Still, within the female spheres of influence, it’s as cutthroat as it can get with ruthless politics and powerplays. Robert is caught in the middle, a symbol of change for some women who see his acceptance into R&E as a step in the right direction, while others would like nothing more than to see him fail as proof that “men just can’t cut it.”
But away from the politicians and generals, down in the lower ranks with Robert and his friends, it’s an easy camaraderie between the women from all walks of life and their fierce loyalty to each other. My hat’s off to Tom Miller for writing the most awesome, realistic and genuine group of women I’ve had the pleasure to read about. They were all written so well, and I loved every one of them: Lt. Drale, Andrada, Punnett, Kiyo, Millen, and all the other women of Second Division. I laughed along with their jokes and antics, commiserated with them over defeats and challenges. It wasn’t difficult to sympathize with Robert’s dilemma, as he gradually grew in solidarity with his sisters in the Corps while feeling more and more unanchored from his life from before. And then, there were the deaths. Obviously, death is a huge theme of this book, being a war story and all, and R&E suffers a lot of casualties while trying to fly the injured out of warzones. Still, I just didn’t expect to hurt so much over the loss of some of these key characters. It was like having my guts ripped out, and yes, there were plenty of tears involved as well.
All told, I loved loved loved The Philosopher’s War. Although the story may take some time to get started, once it does, it becomes this formidable and emotionally powerful novel that will grip your attention and plunge itself into your heart. It’s one of the most poignant and harrowing books I’ve ever read, vividly evoking the terror and tragedies of battle but also the unshakeable bonds that are forged in times of hardship. War is hell for everyone involved, including the rescuers who ferry the gravely wounded men from the frontlines, even though the work is dangerous and fine brave women are being lost every step of the way. But they fly in spite of that, because lives need saving. As the reader, you get to experience those extraordinary friendships that form between Robert and his squad mates, as well as the crushing loss when the war claims them. But amidst the battles and bloodshed, there is also plenty of action, adventure, and even some humor. And of course, the world-building and the magic of philosophy was crazy unique and fantastic. As I’d hoped, this sequel has managed to reach new heights and has even surpassed the original, and I am just absolutely in awe. Whether you’re a war fiction buff, a lover of history, or a sci-fi and fantasy fan, there’s something for everyone, and I can’t recommend this series enough.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Philosopher’s Flight (Book 1)