Tom Miller Takes us to his Alternate Front Lines
War has forever been a driving force shaping the course of our collective destiny, with much of humanity’s history being marred with mass conflicts. No matter how much we try to distance ourselves from it or dream of the day when there is no more need for violence, the reality of the situation dictates war is here to stay. Nevertheless, this certainly doesn’t mean we have to despair and give in to the senseless violence, an idea carried close to heart by Rescue & Evacuation pilot Robert Canderelli Weekes, in Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s War, sequel to The Philosopher’s Flight.
With the events of the first book more or less behind him, Robert has finally been recognized for his tremendous exploits in the war and allowed to join the US Sigilry Corps’ R&E Service, a profession exclusively fulfilled by women until now. With his idealism slowly slipping away, Robert simply does his best to rescue people and learn the art of philosophical magic, at the same time earning the trust of his comrades who didn’t take kindly to him trying to prove himself. Then, he is plunged into a completely unexpected rabbit hole: a grand plan to put an end to the First World War.
Indeed, his new friends are secretly devising a plan to end the war, but they must keep a lid on it for a simple reason: they are planning to use outlawed philosophical means. Being more or less completely on-board with the idea, or at least the final goal, Robert becomes embroiled in this conspiracy, risking his life time after time to gather vital intelligence and run around in enemy territory. Needless to say, the enemy isn’t just sitting around on his thumbs, and the German smokecarvers are also preparing an all-out of their own. Now the question stands, whose plan will go into motion first?
The Magic Reality in The Philosopher’s War
To begin with, I have to start by pointing out if you haven’t read the first book, this one remains very much digestible, but you will likely be a little more confused by the world and its rules. Nevertheless, the author does a good job in my opinion at introducing the uninitiated to the series, and if for whatever reason you are determined to skip the first novel, then feel free to do so. The main reason I’m really bringing this up is due to the complex and profound world of magical realism Tom Miller managed to create in this series.
We’ve seen WWI portrayed through many different lenses at this point, and I have to say the one presented in this series is probably one of my favourites. If like myself you enjoy magic more when it’s presented in a subtle and somewhat realistic way, then you’ll probably fall in love with the world very quickly. The author never uses it as some form of deus ex machina to solve the problems he puts his characters in, but rather as an interesting tool with its share of positive and negative potential.
The alternate timeline of the First World War, which is now obviously going a little bit differently, is also developed very meticulously. The author takes his time in ensuring we understand how this period of history developed in our fantastical setting, to the point where it becomes unrecognizable after a certain stage. Though we do spend most of our time with our main characters, I feel like I have to commend the author’s world-building capabilities, especially how concise and effective he is at depicting the details he wants us to pay attention to. Nothing is lacking, nor superfluous; every description serves its own appreciable role.
Coming Back Down to Earth
While the story and the First World War are indeed heavily coloured by the alternate setting and the magical reality of the world itself, Miller never shies away from depicting the atrocities of war down to their most gut-wrenching and emotional details. There are some fairly graphic descriptions made all the more poignant and effective by the author’s penmanship skills, and unless you’ve got total nerves of steel some of them will stay with you.
I am almost one hundred percent certain some of the passages and terrifying experiences faced by people were taken from historical accounts, and I am glad the author does them justice, rather than try and sweep them under the rug for the purpose of his own story.
Another aspect of The Philosopher’s War which at first took me by a little bit by surprise was the rampant amount of sexism, and at times racism. Personally-speaking, I am not well-enough informed to know exactly how deeply these things ran back at the start of the 20th century, but I can say they occupy a central stage in Miller’s rendition of it.
Whether or not you think these aspects help or hurt the novel, I believe the author deserves at least some respect for examining some of the more pressing and persisting problems in our civilization, disgusting and unsightly as they may be. Personally, I’m always in favour of authors expressing themselves through their works and shedding more light on the issues they believe deserve attention, so in my opinion it all ended up adding to the story.
As you might imagine, this isn’t exactly a bright story full of laughs and giggles. While there are some humorous moments, the terror and despair of the war inevitably colour everything, which only makes the few rays of light seem much more important. Along with the painful descriptions of PTSD and survivor’s guilt, we are also shown a bit of humanity’s warmth, not enough to compensate, but enough to remind us it exists.
The Final Verdict
The Philosopher’s War by Tom Miller is an excellent second book The Philosophers Series and only builds further towards greatness on the foundations of the first novel. The world and the characters are a memorable mix of magic, realism, hope, despair, and most importantly, tremendous depth.
The story takes us through quite a few events of all natures, and moves along rather quickly despite the book being about four hundred pages long. If you liked the first novel or simply enjoy historical fantasy novels revolving around the First World War, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a shot.
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.