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The Philosopher's Flight
by Tom Miller

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I received a free e-book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Normally I scroll through their lists, or search by author name or a title I've heard about. This was offered in an email, an immediate download without having to request it and wait for approval. I might not have been aware of it otherwise, since it is a debut novel from someone I'd never heard of. I am grateful to Simon & Schuster, because I loved it. It's publication date is February 13, and a sequel is already scheduled for sometime next summer. While I wish there were more stand-alone books, when they're this good I don't mind a continuing story.

The term philosopher is used here in the context of alchemy, the posited philosopher's stone being a substance (a powder, or liquid, some chemical concoction) that could transform base metals into gold or silver. It is in the same vein as Rowling titling her first Potter novel "...and The Philosopher's Stone," even though her American publishers changed that to Sorcerer's Stone, afraid their readers would not understand the reference. If the alchemists had been right, the process would have been scientific, but the result would be magical. So it is with The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller, an MD, former EMT, currently an emergency room doctor in Wisconsin. This publisher's page shows him in front of a Med-Evac helicopter. I think it likely the story came to him during emergency flights.

I haven't read that many alternate history stories, and the ones I have generally are not science fiction in the strictest sense. They are of the "what if..." type. What if the South won the Civil War; what if the Axis powers won WW2; what if Rome never fell, etc. However, I am sure this is not the first to propose a major change in technology that reshaped history, although in this case the technology is magical in nature. I won't pretend to understand the methodology of flight he describes, nor any of the other processes, and I won't try to describe them. I suggest other readers not bother trying to puzzle them out either. Just accept the postulates, go with the flow, and you'll be rewarded with an exciting adventure populated with colorful characters.

A variety of chemicals, or in some cases everyday items like corn meal or flour, are used for different processes, and each is put into action through sigilry. A sigil in this context means a symbol, or glyph, drawn by the philosopher to initiate the process. This philosophy originated sometime in the 17th Century, but wasn't perfected and in general use until the mid-19th Century, particularly during the American Civil War. After the Battle of Petersburg, a few of the Confederate survivors, taking the name Trenchers, organized against the sigilrists, branding them as evil witches. Since the majority of the philosophers were women, this could be seen as a parallel to the infamous Salem Witch trials, but I noticed similarites with other historical events. More on that later.

The novel begins in 1917, as the "Great War" rages in Europe. Robert Weekes is a young man who has grown up in Montana around sigilrists, including his mother and sisters. His mother is the County Philosopher, primarily responsible for emergency medical evacuations, although her duties included other things. She had been a R&E sigilrist (Recovery & Evacuation) in several war zones, including Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii. I can't recall now which action prompted the establishment of the Rouen Conventions, but it restricted sigilry to non-combatant actions, whereas before it had also been used in both aggressive and defensive military procedures. It had long been the tradition that flying was restricted to women, with men limited to support personnel as far as sigilry was concerned. But Robert had been trained to fly and assist his mother since he was a young boy, and his dream was to be accepted into the R&E Corps and serve the war effort. Everyone, including his mother, tells him that will never happen. His fortunes change when he is intrumental in rescuing several people, including his mother, during an evacuation assignment.

A nurse at the hospital where he takes the evacuees, also a former R&E Corpswoman, convinces a few friends at Boston's Radcliffe College to accept Robert as a Contingency student. If he passes all courses in his first year all expenses are paid, but if he fails he has to pay, and will lose out on the chance for any position as a sigilrist. Radcliffe is a woman's college, the other men he meets are at nearby Harvard. A lot of his experiences in Boston are similar to any story of college life of the time; the rigors of his course load, eccentric roommates, along with some who see it as an endless party. Robert is the only male flyer, and no matter how impressive his technique, he is constantly ridiculed by most of the others, but he does make friends with a few of the women, and one instructor. Another one of the sigilry techniques is that of transportation. Imagine a Star Trek transporter, but controlled by a woman sigilrist instead, capable of moving people and cargo from one place to another instantaneously. Robert's trip to Boston was by means of several successive commercial transportations. He meets the most famous transporter of them all, Danielle Hardin, the Hero of the Hellespont, the Darling of the Dardanelles, who had successfully rescued nearly a quarter million soldiers from the shores of Gallipoli the previous year, although it took her over thirty transports, and she wasn't able to save everyone.

This is a richly detailed fantasy world, interspersed with the familiar. I'll admit I was skeptical through the first few chapters, but things quickly fell into place, with well-defined characters, and each page brought another delightful concept into view. Some of history is the same. Lincoln was still President during the Civil War, although I don't recall a mention of his assassination, so maybe he lived longer, serving at least two terms. Woodrow Wilson was still President during the Great War (The War To End All Wars), and General Pershing was still commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. Some historical events are similar but shifted in time, and with the addition of the flying R&E Corpswomen. Women were granted the right to vote earlier, in 1864 under Lincoln, but there were still very few women in politics. I suppose it was accepted that women would be the fliers due to their (generally) smaller frame, quicker reflexes, and high endurance, but that was one of the few areas in society where they were accepted. Sigilry was among the first institutions that accepted people of color, again mainly women. The Trenchers, formed by Maxwell Gannet, reminded me of the pro-Confederate forces like Quantrill's Raiders, the Bushwhackers, and that notion was reinforced when Robert's mother told him of some previous clashes between the groups, with her and her fellow sigilrists calling themselves Jayhawks. The Trenchers could also be compared to the KKK, or to any reactionary group that thinks those who don't conform to their narrowly defined concept of humanity are evil and should be wiped out.

So, a period piece set in 1917-18, with a lot of familiar elements, but others transformed in unique and totally unfamiliar ways. We have a man trying to make it in a woman's world, frustrated because he knows he is competent and more accomplished than many of the women fliers, yet he's continually told his ambitions are ridiculous. Even the other men think he's crazy to want something out of his reach. His dream also threatens his relationship with Danielle, an activist and political aspirant, whom he tells he will follow to Washington, but instead, miracle of miracles, he's accepted for R&E training. She had already lost many friends to the war, she doesn't want to lose her lover. I guess we'll find out how it goes next year in The Philospher's War. I recommend this without reservation.

 

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Author
Tom Miller

Published
2018

Available from amazon.com