The Philosopher’s Flight, Tom Miller’s debut novel, is a book that could have gone wrong in so many ways. Instead, it went very right, and I’m still not quite sure how to feel about the ways in which it exceeded my expectations…
The Philosopher’s Flight sets itself in America—largely in Boston—in the years of the Great War. Since the late 1700s, in this world, people have been manipulating the natural world through the use of sigils and substances—a practice in part borrowed from colonised peoples and then industrialised. These “philosophers” (or “sigilists”) are predominantly women, because women are naturally better at this empirical sort of philosophy (which is definitely not magic) and as a result of actions undertaken by a woman and a volunteer corps of sigilists during the American civil war, they have a prestigious place in the armed forces and a significant role in civil life. But a strong anti-sigilist strain remains in American public life, with both vigilante and political movements fighting to see women sigilists—who make few distinctions with regard to colour or creed amongst themselves—once again firmly excluded from public life and the halls of power.
Our main character is Robert Weekes, the son of an ex-military sigilist and her current assistant in her job as county philosopher in rural Montana, who’s dreamed since early childhood of joining the famous Rescue and Evacuation Service of the US Sigilry Corps. The Corps only takes women, but when disaster strikes and Robert manages to pull off a tricky rescue in difficult conditions, he starts to believe he might have a chance at achieving his dreams. With support from his mother and some of her ex-comrades, he leaves home to go study philosophy at Boston’s Radclyffe Hall, the women’s college that, reluctantly, accepts a bare handful of men for its philosophy classes.
At Radclyffe his eyes are opened to the pressures that women and philosophers still face, even as some of the women do their best to drive away the interloping man in their midst. At Radclyffe, too, he meets returning war heroine Danielle Hardin, a woman of colour, and learns that the Corps has a really high casualty rate. Robert and Danielle develop feelings for each other—feelings complicated by Robert’s ambitions and Danielle’s feelings about the war. And by Robert’s gruesome training schedule, as a handful of hardass old women veterans run him ragged to prepare him for the cross-country flying race that will make or break his chances of getting a hearing to enter the Corps.
The Philosopher’s Flight is in essence a school story, a coming-of-age in an intellectual environment. But it is also a story about intersections of privilege and prejudice, which uses Robert’s experience to examine the way that different social experiences affect lives, for better or for worse—and one that doesn’t shy away from depicting vigilantism and hatred directed at the women philosophers for daring to be different and to challenge social norms. (And doesn’t shy away from depicting the way that philosophers, including Robert’s mother, fight back with tactics just as vicious as the ones used against them.)
The Philosopher’s Flight uses chapter epigraphs dated from before and from after the timeline of the novel to make sure the reader understands that we’re seeing a society that changes—and one that’s on the tipping point of reacting strongly against the freedoms and autonomy that women and women philosophers enjoy. Miller evokes a fraught sort of social tension very well indeed. Robert’s voice is very compelling, as is his dawning awareness that he’s only ever seen a fraction of what’s going on around him.
The real charm of The Philosopher’s Flight is in its characterisation. It could have been a bull-in-a-china-shop story about how Robert is unfairly discriminated against because of his gender. But Miller surrounds Robert with so many varied, opinionated, and interestingly flawed—with so many intensely human—women in a complex setting that it never comes close to being such a simplistic narrative. (I’m more interested in Danielle’s evolution as a politician than I am in Robert’s ambitions to join the Rescue and Evacuation Service, but then, I’m a little biased that way.)
Also, The Philosopher’s Flight is about flying. That’s not the only example of cool shit between its covers, but seriously, flying! Flying rescues! Flying races! That’s pretty cool, right?
This is a measured, compelling, and well-paced novel, full of character and incident. Miller has written a very accomplished debut, and I seriously look forward to seeing what he does next.
The Philosopher’s Flight is available now from Simon & Schuster.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.