The description of this book sounded right up my alley. A mix of magic, history, science and more with a whole flipped gender role aspect. I mean seriously, sign me up! And though it took me much longer than I had originally anticipated or hoped to get around to reading it, I was right. (Congratulations to me for knowing my own reading preferences by now, I guess. Haha.) This was nothing if not thoroughly entertaining, fascinating and wildly imaginative.
“To the men the earth, to the women the sky, as God willed it.”
Robert Weekes is a male sigilrist, a branch of empirical philosophy that is dominated by woman practitioners. He dreams of being the first male member of the elite US Sigilry Core Rescue and Evacuation Service, but no man has the skills for that…so he is stuck spending his time assisting his mother in her local service position in rural Montana. However, after he is (finally) about to showcase some of his abilities in an emergency situation, he earns a scholarship seat at the all-female Radcliffe College. While there, Robert faces all sorts of discrimination, makes some lifelong friends, falls in love with a young war hero turned activist and works harder than anyone in the school to try and achieve his Rescue and Evac dreams, all while drawing the ire of female philosophical traditionalists and a fanatic group of anti-philosophers.
This is, without a doubt, one of the most well developed alternate history novels I have ever read. When I originally looked at the description of the novel, I thought it might ring similar to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is another sweeping magical historical reimagining. And while I did enjoy that book, I liked this one so much better! It’s pacing is considerably faster and everything just feels much more high stakes. If I had to compare the two, I’d say Strange and Norrell is sort of a slow-sip neat pour of a strong whiskey, while Philosopher’s Flight is more of a whiskey sour. Anyways, back on track, this book was absolutely impressive in it’s creative scope. It’s a bit like steampunk, with it’s addition of technologies and customs to a time period that was, in reality, much more primitive, but with a more scientific-magical than technological bend to the additions. The weaving of philosophical “magic” into all aspects of life, from transportation to politics to religious zeal to war was seamless and comprehensive. And the little passages/quotes from “history” books that started each chapter, retelling parts of the past with philosophical supplements, were a fun way to add even more depth to that world development. Also, the detail included in everything philosophical was mind-boggling, like the specifics of flying (or hovering), sigil drawing methods and theory, the medical uses, the “secret” university societies around it, the societal norms around it, and the serious vs sport type uses of it. Honestly, I cannot even begin to guess how long it took the author to map out and think through all the details, but you can tell how much went into it by how effortlessly the history and plot unfold.
As far as the characters, I definitely got into their stories. There were a lot of them, and their backgrounds and personalities were all just as fleshed out as the world-building, so it took some time to get a handle on it all after meeting them. But I didn’t mind the effort because it all just seemed so real that it was worth doing. I cannot say that there were any serious character development moments, and to that extent this was definitely a setting and plot driven novel, but I don’t think that was a particular problem for me. We really only spend about a year with them, and they are all university age or adult already, so much of their major changes are already complete. This is really just a chance to live in and experience a fantastic “new” world with a great set of already formed characters. But despite that more or less static character development arc, that plot that drives the story is worth reading. Things start up fast and serious, though they slow down a little once Robert gets to Radcliffe and he is forming new friendships. I respect the need for this change in pace in the middle, but I did have to skim just a little through some of it so it didn’t drag too long (particularly regarding some of the particularly in depth about sigil theory and flying techniques). And the last third or so is just great – the pace picks up, the action stays constant, and by the end I couldn’t read fast enough.
I loved the upending of social norms and gender roles as they were in the 20th century. This kind of flipped story is something I usually really enjoy (which is why The Power was one of my absolute favorite recent reads) and it’s creatively and intuitively done here. There are many moments of small discomfort as Robert challenges these roles that are incredibly poignant and recognizable. And when arguments against his participation in certain aspects of life and philosophy strike the reader as absolutely ridiculous, it’s provides a stark and ideal opportunity to examine the gender role prejudices we have today. That’s what good writing can do – and I am so grateful for it.
This is a phenomenal mix of history, social commentary, medicine, political intrigue, and some budding romance, all with a great side of magic. It has a little something for everyone and is incredibly well written. A very, very impressive debut.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Simon and Schuster, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.