“We’ve got killers enough in the family. You – you’re going to be the first man in R&E”
Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, shape clouds of smoke, heal the injured, and even fly. Robert wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable, unruly women.
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5 / 5
What a surprise! This book with a totally wacky premise, that was a little bit difficult to get into, and made me a bit cautious with it’s “reverse-sexism” theme, ended up being a five star read. The Philosopher’s Flight has a strong male lead, a fantastic mostly female supporting cast, is engaging and highly original, and had me rooting for Robert the whole way through.
“I’m in the thrall to it and so are you. You’re called. If you don’t answer, you’ll lose the better part of yourself”
We are in the early 1900s, in the midst of World War One, and the air is full of politics and heat. Imagine the world as it might have actually been in that time, with women fighting tooth and nail for their right to vote, with ideas about being ladylike, with men dominating the infantry and most areas of society. All this is in The Philosopher’s Flight ,and then. The most amazing, most respected thing a human being can do – empirical philosophy and sigilry – is the domain of women alone. This is, essentially, magic. Done by using powder to draw sigils, or glyphs, women can influence smoke, create fire and force, and, the most impressive of all, fly.
Alongside the bulk of the Army is the highly respected Sigilry Corps. They transport armies in the blink of an eye, cover the enemies’ trenches in smoke, and generally aid the war effort enormously. Most respected of all is Rescue and Evacuation (R&E). Some men hate them, hate what they can do, all the women want to be them. No man has every flown in R&E. Enter Robert Weekes. His mother was a sigilwoman in various wars, now she is a country philosopher rescuing livestock, providing medicine, flying out the rural wounded to bigger hospitals. Robert is her assistant, unofficial because the board won’t legitimise a man, and his childhood dream is to fly R&E.
Well, philosophy warps the laws of probability
When his older sister urges him to apply to Radcliffe, a mostly women’s school that focuses on flight and hovering, he cautiously submits an application. They only take a few men on Contingency, meaning that if they fail out, as they are mostly expected to (because, of course, men cannot do philosophy and their sigils are weak) they are drafted into the war. He is accepted and goes to Radcliffe with his second-hand flight knowledge and his mother’s war stories and the protests of the female students.
At Radcliffe Robert finds enemies in the form of the flight instructor who can’t believe a man can fly and demotes him to the lowest rank. But he also finds allies in the form of his roommate Unger, owner of a hundred and fifty nine bowties who cannot ignite a single sigil, and some women of the student body: flighty and fiesty “Jake” Jacobi, the medalled young war hero Dar, and a select few members of the staff who advise him and encourage him. Robert is modest, likeable, and believably skilled and successful. He is a man who hasn’t reached his full potential because of the barriers society has placed against him – this is not the story of a man who rocks up to a college to “put women in their place” or anything, it’s just about a man who wants to fly, who wants to save lives, who has a good, kind heart.
Sigilwoman Robert A. Weekes. Was it really so absurd?
This is a fantastic, amazing example of how to do historical magical realism. There are real events woven into the imaginary ones, there is an interesting re-imagining of society that flips the tables without demonising women, and a compelling protagonist that you can’t help but love.
My thanks to Netgalley for an ARC of this book.