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‘The Philosopher’s Flight’ a soaring debut

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One could argue that the idea of a world where magic works has been done to death in the realm of fantasy fiction. Whether you’re talking about urban fantasy set in the present day or fiction with a more historical bent, it’s a creative vein that has been pretty thoroughly mined.

And yet, when it works, it REALLY works. And Tom Miller’s “The Philosopher’s Flight” (Simon & Schuster, $26) REALLY works.

Set in the early part of the 20th century, it takes place in a world where magic – here dubbed “empirical philosophy” and considered a branch of scientific practice – is a very real, very controversial part of the societal fabric. Through the use of sigils (drawn designs of varying intricacy), astounding feats can be done: some good, others less so. And at its highest level, it is practiced almost exclusively by women, a fact that is less than well-received by the male half of the population.

Despite the good that has been done through empirical philosophy, there are many – mostly of the male persuasion – who distrust and fear it. Chief among them are the Trenchers, a collective of hateful, angry men who are willing to do whatever it takes – up to and including murder – to try and eliminate the practice entirely.

Robert Weekes is 18 years old. He lives in Montana and works as an assistant to his mother, a powerful empirical philosopher whose efforts during various wars are the stuff of legends. He himself is a practitioner, one who is considered to be quite talented … for a man.

His dream is to become a member of the elite U.S. Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service – or R&E. It is the sole accepted way for empirical philosophy to be utilized in the theater of war due to agreements made following the commission of some monstrous acts during the Civil War and other fights. There has never been a male member of R&E; Robert would be the first.

To that end, he wins a scholarship to attend Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school in Boston that is one of the premier institutions of higher learning with regards to empirical philosophy. It is there that his abilities will be truly put to the test. And all the while, he’s also left to navigate through a world where he is viewed with disgust by his classmates and disdain by everyone else. There are precious few allies.

There’s his roommate and fellow male enrollee Fred Unger, a brilliant theoretician who nevertheless can’t manage to get even the simplest sigils to actually work. There’s Gloxinia Jacobi – Jake if you’re smart – who meets Robert right off the train and sees him for who he is. And there’s Danielle Hardin, a war hero in her own right who has returned to Radcliffe and with whom Robert finds a truly powerful connection. A handful more, but mostly, it’s Robert against the world. No matter where he turns, he faces an uphill battle.

Lucky for him, however – he knows how to fly.

“The Philosopher’s Flight” is a wonderful blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Miller has created a rich and textured world in which to operate. The dynamics of empirical philosophy are well-considered and nuanced; the rules, capabilities and limitations of the practice are consistent and complex while still being easy to understand. All this is folded into the early 19th century era cleanly and concisely, with all of the social dynamics that that time period entails.

Each chapter is led by a quote – sometimes attributed to a real historical figure, sometimes to an invented one – that lends context to the world in which these characters live. Some are from the past, others are from the future, but it all contributes to a layered engagement that is simply wonderful to read.

Of course, none of it really matters without a compelling narrative. Miller delivers here as well, giving us characters with complicated motivations and imperfections. Robert is an engaging hero, one whose reach exceeds his grasp in many ways. And the secondary cast – heroic and villainous alike – offers a depth of characterization that makes for a quality reading experience.

“The Philosopher’s Flight” was an unexpected delight for me – I had no expectations going in, but what I got was a top-notch piece of fiction. Blending fantasy and history doesn’t always work, but it sure works here. This might be Tom Miller’s first novel, but I feel confident that it won’t be his last. If we’re lucky, maybe he’ll allow us to take flight with his philosophers again. The sooner the better.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 February 2018 13:30

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