The Philosopher’s Flight has the tagline, “Half science, half magic – entirely fantastic” on the cover, which coupled by the title and women flying had me intrigued right away. Tom Miller dedicated the book to Abby, “Who once asked why there were so few women in my stories”. My reaction to those words was excitement at the idea of a woman protagonist that flies with the aid of philosophy (whatever that meant).
That illusion was quickly dashed when it was revealed that the main character was a man, Robert Weekes. I may have admitted an audible sigh a couple pages in. Perhaps it was coming off the incredibly macho Altered Carbon, maybe it was just the result of years reading from the male POV, regardless I was a little disappointed having anticipated a woman in the main role.
As the pages went by I was slowly drawn into and won over by this alternate history where a science, called empirical philosophy, allows people to do amazing things; like fly, make plants to grow bigger and produce more crops, or put people into stasis so that they can survive critical wounds long enough to reach medical help. Conversely it can also do horrific things like internally dissolve bones so you are left with a pile of skin, muscles, and organs. From the outside it seems like magic but is governed by the scientific principles of sigilry. The nifty thing is that women are naturally better philosophers than men and particularly better at hovering (flying). It is a science with women being the main practitioners.
The time period of the book is during WWI, the disaster of Gallipoli has recently occurred and it was due to the incredible actions of Danielle Hardin, a female philosopher with a specialty in transporting, that so many men had been saved. As women are superior fliers, they are the core of rescue and evacuation operations on the war front. Lured in by the glamour of news reels depicting R&E women as angels saving heroes, many young women attend colleges to become elite hoverers in the hopes of being invited to R&E testing.
One might assume that women philosophers would be held up in high regard and in some circles that is true. However, there is an ugly movement, the Trenchers, led by a fanatic who finds empirical philosophy evil in need of being cleansed from the earth, mostly through murder. Trenchers believe philosophers capable of unnatural and sinful powers. Their leader uses these beliefs to whip his followers into a frenzy. Some cities have started the slippery slope of regulating where, when, and which philosophies can be practiced.
Robert Weekes’ mother, Emmeline, is a county philosopher. She responds and flies out to all sort of emergencies and uses her philosophical skills to save lives as well as fix more mundane problems. Kind of like an all purpose 911 system for her section of Montana. Raised by his mother and two half sisters, Robert has studied sigilry and philosophy all his life. Growing up on the heroic tales of a woman commander in the Cuban war, and his mother’s own stories of serving in multiple conflicts, Robert wants nothing more than to become a male R&E member. A desire he keeps to himself due to how laughable it is, men aren’t good enough fliers to even think about joining the all women R&E.
When his mother fails in an evacuation, Robert finds unknown reserves and saves several lives. This act opens a door and gets him admission to Radcliffe college, where he is one of three men. It is at Radcliffe that Robert discovers how truly gifted he is as a flier. It is also where he meets and falls in love with the talented and politically active Danielle Hardin, savior of Gallipoli and philosopher rights advocate.
While the main character might be male, he is surrounded by and in a world of women. The Philosopher’s Flight is an interesting role reversal. We are used to the story of the brave young woman having to enter the realms of men to pursue her dreams. Here we have a male entering the domain of women. He is scorned, despised for even being at the college, verbally abused, and continually tested in his worth to be at Radcliffe. The ridicule is made tolerable by the companionship and support of his friends (mainly fellow women hoverers) and the belief from his instructors that he might have what it takes to join R&E.
While initially put off, I found myself quite enjoying Robert’s journey and curious as to how it was all going to work out. Tom Miller also draws some great parallels to current events in society, particularly the restriction of rights due to fear and hatred. As well as the division between the peaceful and offensive movements to counteract that hatred. The first in a series and I am definitely interested in the sequel.