Tom Miller Re-imagines History
The concept of magic has undergone many transformations over the millennia, going from a routine part of daily life for old civilizations to the largely dismissed state it’s in for us now.
Very few are those who really believe in magic as anything more than an art practiced by entertainers, but this certainly doesn’t stop the imaginative ones amongst us from dreaming about all the variations it could come in.
It seems every author has his or her own idea for how magic could manifest itself in our world, and in my opinion Tom Miller comes up with one of the more interesting approaches to the subject in his first novel, The Philosopher’s Flight .
As the story begins in WWI-era America, we are introduced to Robert Weekes, a practitioner of an arcane science known as empirical philosophy. A female-dominated field, it is often used to accomplish the seemingly impossible, such as shaping clouds, healing the wounded, or even flying.
Though Robert dreams of helping his country fight in the war, he must stay home to help his mother, a former soldier and vigilante, to run their family business in rural Montana.
However, fate smiles towards the young Robert as he wins a scholarship to an all-women’s college where he can truly find a place for himself as an empirical philosopher, and perhaps even put his skills to use in the war.
Needless to say, it’s all more easily said than done. In addition to his formidable peers, Robert also finds himself contending against a group of anti-philosophical radicals who present an increasingly growing danger not only to his education, but also his life.
Magic and Reality in The Philosopher’s Flight
I could probably go on all day long in trying to enumerate the different approaches to magic I’ve come across in recent years, but speaking in terms of big picture, I can safely divide them into two categories: non-realistic and realistic.
When it comes to the former, authors simply push the envelope as much as their imagination allows them to, often taking us far beyond the scope of the believable.
As for the latter, the writer makes all the possible efforts to reduce the amount of suspension of disbelief we have to subject ourselves to… they try and make it believable. The Philosopher’s Flight definitely falls into the latter category of realistic magic.
From the very first pages Miller makes a point of presenting the magical elements of his world through a scientific lens, as if they are merely part of humanity’s technological advancements and are completely lawful in nature.
I particularly enjoyed the long descriptions pertaining to “sigilry”, essentially technological magic which allows philosophers to achieve the impossible. He tries his best to give us a profound and tangible understanding of how the arcane science works, which in turn almost makes it seem like some sort of manual for magic at times.
While I can see some readers getting a bit bored with these segments, I think anyone who enjoys the concept of magic will have a field day here. If I could equate it to something, imagine Andy Weir’s very technical-yet-understandable style, but applied to magic rather than science.
A Different College Experience
In The Philosopher’s Flight the bulk of the story does take place in the afore-mentioned women’s college as we watch Robert trying to clumsily navigate the agitated waters of student politics. One interesting twist on the story is the fact Robert is the only male at the school and must thus deal with gender discrimination.
While I do readily admit this concept does sound a bit ridiculous and cringe-worthy on the surface, I was pleasantly surprised with the way Miller went about it.
He never shoves anything down your throat, nor does he really point out his social criticisms and whatnot. Instead, he simply progresses the story and allows us to draw our own conclusions based on the events and character interactions we witness.
It all flows together naturally within the context of the story, and ultimately the silliness of this plot point is replaced by curiosity of what’s coming next.
The story itself is largely character-focused as you might expect, with much of it taking place in a single building. On this end, Miller has demonstrated a commendable aptitude for creating convincing characters who feel like they truly belong in the world they inhabit.
While I will admit some of them felt a bit similar and a few of the lesser ones pretty shallow, on the whole the main cast left nothing to be desired. Robert makes for a lovable and endearing protagonist we can’t help but sympathize with, especially as he falls for a young war hero turned radical, Danielle, who herself has quite the story to tell.
The anti-philosophical group does make for an interesting set of antagonists to the story, mostly because their perspectives go beyond the traditional scope of black-and-white, with some of their viewpoints actually having merit. While I never cheered for them, I was curious to learn more about them rather than wish they were gone. The Philosopher’s Flight
The Final Verdict
The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller presents one of my favourite takes on the concept of magic in recent memory, turning it into a science and making it quasi-believable.
This character-driven, coming-of-age story does have its fair share of twists along the way as well as some moments which can really make you stop in your tracks and put you into a deep think.
I can only strongly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys the type of fantasy to blend magic and science together.
Tom Miller is an American author from Wisconsin who graduated from Harvard University and subsequently went on to earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of Notre Dame as well as an MD from the University of Pittsburgh.
While working as an emergency room doctor he has also found the time to write and publish The Philosopher’s Flight and The Philosopher’s War.