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‘The Philosopher’s War’ fights the good fight

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There are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to choosing to dig into a literary series. The truth is that a lot of these series, while perfectly OK, are just that – OK. And if you’re OK with OK, well … OK. But if you’re someone who wants something more, someone who is looking for a much richer experience than you can get from the standard-issue sci-fi or fantasy series, taking the plunge can be tough.

Tom Miller’s latest is “The Philosopher’s War” (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). It’s the second installment in a series begun last year with “The Philosopher’s Flight.” It is also a book that strives for that richness of experience, one replete with interesting ideas, compelling characters and an ambitious world. And while it might not quite reach the heights to which it ultimately aspires, it still soars plenty high indeed.

In this world, magic – known as empirical philosophy – is real, dictated by a complex system of sigils and runes. Different people share affinity with different symbols – and each symbol generates its own sort of power. The sigils can be used to create fire and shape smoke. They can be used to teleport over great distances and to fly. They can be used to heal … and to kill.

It wasn’t long ago that Robert Canderelli Weekes was a college student at Radcliffe, one of the few male philosophers out there – and the only one able to fly. In the midst of the Great War, circumstances have led him to enlist in the armed forces, the first-ever man to join the Rescue & Evacuation service of the U.S. Sigilry Corps. He’s the first male Sigilwoman.

Past atrocities have led the world to agree to a defense-and-rescue-only policy on the battlefield – weaponized empirical philosophy resulted in the most horrific moments in some horrifying wars. But as Robert joins his new division in France, it soon becomes clear that there are some who would end that prohibition so that they might win the war – and damned be the consequences.

Without fully realizing it, Robert is swept up into the roiling swirl of danger and intrigue. He is being pulled from all sides – a mother with a wartime history she’d rather forget, a girlfriend with political sway who’d rather remove him from the field altogether, a commanding officer who demands more of him and a division of comrades who gradually, begrudgingly come to trust him. All of these people with their own goals and their own motivations, all seeking Robert’s help.

But what does HE want? He has to choose – and his choices will have wide-ranging consequences, up to and including ending the war … or escalating it.

The best part of “The Philosopher’s War” – and the best part of the series as a whole – is the world that Tom Miller has created. There’s a real sense of historicity here, a veracity to the manner in which the whole thing has been constructed. The degree of close consideration given to the particulars of empirical philosophy is apparent throughout, lending a depth to the proceedings that contributes mightily to the story’s immersive nature.

One of Miller’s most ingenious choices – carried forward from the first book – is opting to headline each chapter with a quote pulled from the history of this world. These quotes range some way into the future at times, giving the grander arc a historical foundation even as the story itself plays out very much in the present.

There are some issues, however, the main one being a general flatness to many of the characters. It’s understandable – Miller has put together a large cast, and with this many featured players, it can sometimes be tough to give everyone a shot at real development. The end result is that while Robert and a handful of others are fleshed out nicely, there are some characters that feel more or less interchangeable. There’s a generic vibe to them that doesn’t fully click with the complexity of the deeper dramatis personae or the of the world itself.

Please note that this is a relatively minor flaw; the central journey – Robert’s journey – is clearly, cleanly characterized. The pros definitely outweigh the cons as far as the overall experience is concerned.

“The Philosopher’s War” is not without flaws, but it’s an undeniably enjoyable read. The world that Tom Miller has created is as detailed and compelling as anything you’ll find in contemporary fantasy, packed with meticulously-constructed elements that are well worth exploring.

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 August 2019 11:40

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