In a world of woman-dominated practical magic, a young man yearns to make a place for himself.
Debut novelist Miller offers a wealth of worldbuilding in this deft, nonconformist historical fantasy set during World War I. The novel is set up as a nostalgic account written by Robert Weekes, a field commander in the Free North American Air Cavalry, in 1939, and his prologue introduces us to this alternate reality. Immense power is wielded here by “empirical philosophers,” nearly all women. “All of us are empirical philosophers, or sigilrists if you prefer the common term,” Weekes says. “And what is empirical philosophy—what is sigilry—except a branch of science that we don’t yet fully understand? There’s no dark art to it; it’s nothing more than the movement of energy to produce a physical effect. The human body provides the power, while the sigil, drawn sometimes with beads of water, sometimes with cornmeal or sand, catalyzes the movement. You can do a thousand useful things: make a plant grow larger and faster; send a message a thousand miles in an instant; fly. If you grew up with it, it’s natural. It’s right. Why would anyone want life to be otherwise?” In other words, a world where women control the power. It’s also a divided world in which “trenchers” fear and hate empirical philosophers and threaten their very lives. When the story begins, Weekes is a Montana farm boy, but he's an ambitious one who yearns to join the Rescue and Evacuation Division of the US Sigilry Corps, fliers capable of incredible feats. After a harrowing wilderness rescue, Weekes earns a place at Radcliffe College, where he bonds with a cadre of formidable women. More importantly, he meets Danielle Hardin, jaded hero of the Battle of Gallipoli, who quickly earns his affections. Because the novel relies heavily on the mechanics of flying, it could have read like a Harry Potter novel all about Quidditch. Instead, Miller offers a nuanced adventure story that mixes romance, gunplay, and social awareness into its steampunk-ish revelry.
A fun, fast-paced coming-of-age story laced with magic.