Review: The Philosopher's Flight / by Madeleine Riley

Note: Top Shelf Text received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own!

It would be hard to craft a book with a more perfectly-quirky premise than The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller. Beside the vibrant, gorgeous cover, this book's premise felt almost perfectly tailored to my reading preferences.

The Philosopher's Flight follows Robert Weekes, a young man of just 18, who lives in rural Montana with his mother in an old farmhouse in the early 1900's. This version of the 20th century is much like the one we know all about, including the massively overwhelming conflict called The Great War. In this first pages of this story, however, we find that The Philosopher's Flight isn't so much a historical fiction novel, but could more accurately be described as an alternate history with a touch of magical realism. Because in Robert's version of America in the early 20th century, he's struggling to break into a female-dominated branch of science called empirical philosophy. The practice itself is an alluring and uniquely constructed mix of science and magic, for which women have a natural aptitude.

Robert's mother, a former war hero and the local county philosopher, raised Robert with a respect for empirical philosophy, and even more, a desire to be a great sigilrist -- a philsopher who uses complicated symbols drawn with powder to launch themselves into flight. Early in the book, Robert pursues his dream of becoming an official philosopher when he's accepted into the all-women's Radcliffe College.The story follows Robert through a series of trials at his new university, as he battles both rampant sexism from his philosopher peers and the outside threat of the Trenchers, a group of anti-philosopher extremists with a tendency towards violence.

The first in the Philosopher's War Series, this book captured my attention with memorable characters and a version of history that felt plausible enough to keep me curious throughout the story. I do think the novel could have been a bit shorter, as many of the episodes throughout didn't quite serve the overall arc of the story, but I expect the role of this first installment to be mostly set-up for the remainder of the series. The world that Tom Miller has created is much like our own, but the field of empirical philosophy obviously has a deep history and requires giving the reader quite a bit of information to keep up. Even then, I sometimes felt like I was listening in on a conversation in another language with all of the philsopher-speak -- almost as if too much of the book fell into the category of technical explanations.

The thing I liked most about this book, besides the very memorable and (mostly) likable characters, was its feminist slant. The story felt feminist but not fake, in that it didn't try to pretend that this alternate history was free from discrimination of any kind. I loved that women held power and position (especially given the period it's set in) and that in Robert's efforts to break through the "glass ceiling" of a female-dominated field, he had to endure much of the same discrimination and doubt that you'd expect from any woman making waves in a mostly male profession. The danger of the Trencher party, which discriminated against philosophers as satanists, felt like it had been plucked right out of our current society and shaped to spread light on how dangerous blind hatred and condemnation can be.

The story ends on a decent cliffhanger, and I'll certainly be in line to read the next installment, whenever it makes its way into the world. I'd recommend this story for readers who enjoyed The Paper Magician series by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Glass Sentence (Mapmakers Trilogy) by S.E. Grove, and The Magicians series by Lev Grossman. (Though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I had a strong love/hate experience reading The Magicians and wouldn't recommend it to all readers, but do recognize the parallels between these two reads.)

This title will be released on February 13, 2018