Sunday, 26 November 2017

Review: The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel

The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was excellent, and I'm really glad I took the risk with it.

It was recommended by a fellow writer on a forum we both frequent, and when I saw it was on Netgalley I picked it up. My big concern was that the genderflip inherent in the premise - women are, for unexplained reasons, the best at magic, and a young man tries to establish himself among them during the period of the First World War - could so easily have gone terribly wrong. (I'm thinking of that awful raceflipped Pearls thing from a few years back.)

I'm relieved to report that for me - and you have to remember I'm male - it succeeded in not being horribly tone-deaf in its treatment of the genderflip. First of all, many of the female characters, including the protagonist's mother, sisters, colleagues, and friends, are the kind of pragmatic, competent women that my own mother, sisters, colleagues, and friends are. Secondly, they're not idealised; though they're fine people in all the ways that really count, they're often coarse, they make bad decisions at times, and they struggle with assorted character flaws and blind spots. Other female characters are petty, selfish, silly, shallow, manipulative, all the things that real people (of both genders) are. If you're going to portray people who are not like you, this is the way to do it: make them feel like real people.

Then the genderflip itself, the man struggling to succeed in a woman's world, is well done. I found Robert instantly relatable; he has a noble dream, to be part of the Rescue and Evacuation Corps who save wounded soldiers on the battlefield, using "sigilry" (the magic system) to fly them to safety. It looks like he can't have that dream. Even the women who support him becoming the best sigilrist he can be don't believe he can be accepted to the Corps; even his mother, his hero and inspiration, doesn't believe he should be accepted, even if he qualifies.

He'd be a distraction to the women. He wouldn't fit in. He'd be a curiosity. It would be an exercise in political point-scoring, not a merit-based appointment. He wouldn't be able to do the work as well as a woman. If he was accepted, he'd have to be called a Sigilwoman; that's the name of the rank, and you can't simultaneously ask for equal treatment and ask for special treatment, now can you? Women bully him, haze him, threaten to boycott a major sporting event if he takes part, mark him down unfairly, strip him of an honour he's won by tremendous effort. He has to be better than most women to even be considered. He has, in other words, the experience of any outsider trying to enter a social space that's traditionally been closed to people like them.

It's a story about family, and love, and friendship, and overcoming prejudice and injustice. Apart from a very early infodump, there's not a craft misstep in it; the author has both an MFA and an MD, which is an unusual combination, and draws on his knowledge of emergency medicine to make the multiple rescue scenes gripping and realistic. I loved Robert's competence in a crisis, demonstrated very early on and repeatedly after that, and so clearly learned from his mother.

Robert doesn't just have societal prejudice about gender roles to contend with, either. The Trenchers, a political/religious group opposed to sigilry of all kinds and willing to take extreme measures against those who practice it, are constant threats, with some terrifying encounters that test Robert's values and ideals severely. This, too, is established right out of the gate and persists as a strong thread throughout.

I enjoyed the epigraphs to the chapters, quotations from various invented documents which give intriguing glimpses into the characters' future and make me want to read more of their story - if I didn't already want to do so because of the excellent quality of this book. I very much do want to read more, and I will eagerly await a sequel.

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