Rating: a sigil to allow one to fly
Highlight of note: Miller offers commentary on sexism through a reverse lens, offering us a male lead who keeps being told he can't do things because he's not a woman.
Will I read the next one? I'm first in the library holds line for it!
the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
"Philosophy" strikes me as an interesting word to use to describe what one is tempted to call magic. Through the discipline of empirical philosophy, practitioners in this alternate reality use powders to draw sigils that behave as spells. For reasons no one has really determines, women are in general better at this practice than men due to having more natural power, which led to an interesting divergence of history when philosophy came into popular use in the US Civil War. In this world, not only did Lincoln free the slaves, but he gave women the right to vote. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to have affected any of the presidential elections between then and World War I, but there is some mention of voter suppression that could explain that.
In this book, our main character, Robert (somewhat distractedly called Boober by his family) was raised the only male in a family of philosophers and began learning sigils before he learned how to write his name. He's nowhere near the best philosopher in the United States, but he may be the best male philosopher in the country. As the US begins to send troops to defend France from the Germans, Robert is accepted into a special program at Radcliffe College where he is one of a handful of male philosophers and the only male to be specializing in the flight-based area called hovering.
Although in this world women were given the vote earlier than in our world and there are females in Congress during the story, there is also ample evidence that misogyny is alive and well in Robert's United States. This is shown primarily through a group called Trenchers who argue against all use of empirical philosophy, using the arguments that it goes against the natural order of things and displeases God. They behave exactly as I would expect the real-world religious right to respond and are highly, almost depressingly, believable. I don't feel Miller glossed over the misogyny, although I'm not certain he shouldn't have given it more attention than he did. The reference to female votes being suppressed did take up multiple paragraphs, but it merely confused Robert, who said that didn't seem right but failed to appear truly angered by it even though he was subjected to so much sexism himself.
The anti-males-in-philosophy sexism in this story is a little problematic at times. Robert's dream since childhood has been to serve in an elite military unit specializing in rescue and evacuation. He's ridiculed about this at nearly every step, even by his own mother, a veteran of several wars who says repeatedly that she would never have allowed a man in her commands. There's a strong component at his school that don't think he has any business being at the school, let alone in the Rescue and Evacuation Corps, and an even stronger one at other schools that feel this way when he enters into a collegiate competition. While I supported Robert, the point I worry Miller fails at is in showing true understanding of why the women are upset. Yes, some of it is simple and ugly prejudice. But there is also a legitimate fear of losing safe spaces and female agency that is never acknowledged. Yes, women can be war heroes here, but I saw no evidence that this meant they could also study medicine or be soldiers without also being philosophers, or that levels of sexual harassment and rape were any lower than they were in our 1910's. But there was no sympathy shown anywhere about how Robert's presence could be seen as a herald of an influx of men who would would lead to women being possibly demeaned, abused, or devalued. Instead, the women who did not completely support Robert where portrayed as just as hateful and irrational as the Trenchers. I'm not saying that they were right to worry about male infiltration of the one professional sphere in which women were granted superiority, but I do think the matter could have been handled with a little more compassion. As it was, it had too great a feel of people countering the statement that misogyny is still a problem holding back young women in the United States with the assertion that we've done away with all-male colleges but still have women's ones.
Mixed feelings about the portrayal of the prejudice Robert faced aside, I really did enjoy this book. The writing is strong and engaging enough that I was immediately drawn in and my attention held throughout.
While it's tempting to say the setting is the star of this book, the cast is also well done. Robert's a good guy and I really wanted him to do well. He's easy and entertaining to cheer for. Meanwhile, the supporting characters are both interesting and vibrant. From the roommate who introduces himself by saying how many bow-ties he owns to the general who attends important meetings with her knitting in hand, I liked getting to know these people.
The plot contains several mini-climaxes and stays engaging throughout. There was one thing that puzzled me though. At one point, one of the characters has been repeatedly threatened and people are credibly trying to murder her. I would have been incredibly concerned and eagerly reading to make sure she was okay, except that she appears in some the quotes given at the starts of the chapters with a title that she clearly doesn't have yet, which makes it obvious she's going to survive. I am honestly perplexed why Miller did that. Otherwise, the story pulled me along the whole time. And while the conclusion leaves off at a point that leaves no doubt there is a sequel, it was solid enough that I'm not too frustrated that I won't be able to read the next installment until this summer. I've already put a hold on it at my library, where I am first in line when it releases.
Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.
2% I'm not sure why the sigils usage is refered to as philosophy rather than a form of science. I'm intrigued by the world though. The opening background story was highly engaging and didn't feel like an infodump.
15% I'm very happy he's introducing himself in Boston as Robert. People calling him Boober was distracting me from an otherwise enjoyable universe.
16% "Don't touch me, you ratfuck bastard!" RatFUCK not ratFINK. I like this Jake girl.
28% I'm not sure what's up with the dean being insane. I know uppercrust schools like famous deans, but surely functionality is also a qaulity to be desired. Also not sure why Rachael has her job when her incompetence is such that girls are being endangered. Is it just the famous aunt? Because I'm pretty sure wrongful death lawsuits existed in the 1910's.
30% I have no idea what Robert has just signed up for. And niether does he. But it sounds expensive.
32% I complete agree with Robert's mom about the flyers having a shitty chain of command. Rachael physically accosted Robert. If he wasn't so much bigger than her, that would clearly have been physical abuse. Of course, he is bigger than her and now I'm worried that merely throwing her off is going to get people talking about him being violent and dangerous. Although no one likes Rachael, so maybe not.
33% If Jake doesn't think she's woman enough for Robert, who does she think is? The war hero maybe?
36% War hero Dardanelles is about to kick Robert's ass. She'll probably be impressed by this new shielding technique though.
44% I'm really liking Robert's romance with Dar. The scene in the night club was particularly well done.
47% The details of the theater hand-holding are marvelous.
51% Whoa. Can I be like Gertrude when I grow up? Talk about one kick ass octogenarian!
64% I'm liking all the political protest tensions. They're very compelling. ... And it's always fun when the counter protest is so successful the original protesters show up late and in small numbers.
65% The Trencher bar is burning! Is it wrong of me to be pleased?
68% Not sure if I'm proud of Robert or disappointed in him for saving the head Trencher. I doubt the guy is going to be grateful when he wakes up and finds out what happened.
76% I would be feeling very worried about Dar's safety were one of the earlier snippets before chapters a quote from a Representative with her name. Which makes me wonder why the author did that. ... And Chapter 33 starts with another one, just in case we missed or forgot the earlier reference to Rep Danielle Noor Hardin.
77% Why the hell isn't Racael being expelled? She threw urine on a fellow student and then destroyed property worth hundreds of dollars.
85% He's in! Yay! And Dar's breaking up with him because of it. I can kind of understand. But alos kind of not. Breaking up with someone doesn't mean you stop caring about them.
90% Thier friends think Essie has a crush on Robert. I've been thinking that for a while too.
91% And Robert and Dar are back together. Kinda, at least. So there's an interesting conflict set up for next book.
END And the last 8% of the file is previews...
It was a good ending, solid. It leaves me looking forward to the next book being available but not driving myself crazy over a cliffhanger.