This fun debut novel from Miller is also the first in a planned series called "The Philosopher's War," and I, for one, am looking forward to further installments. The tagline on the cover of the book is "Half science, half magic – entirely fantastic," and that sums it up pretty well.
Miller has created an alternate history of our world in which the science of empirical philosophy (which looks a lot like magic) is practiced by those who possess the abilities to do so. Most philosophers are women, and those men who are practitioners are typically less skilled. In the prologue we meet Robert Weekes, who explains a bit of the history of empirical philosophy (also called sigilry). It apparently came into common use in 1750, and, while feared by some, most people liked what it could do. However, when a particularly destructive technique that had been discovered in 1831 by Lucretia Cadwallader was put to gruesome use against southern soldiers in the Civil War, people were horrified. Now, there is a minority vocally – and sometimes violently – opposed to its use.
In April 1917 Robert is 18 years old and living in rural Montana with his mother, Maj. Emmaline Weekes. Maj. Weekes spent 30 years and several different conflicts "with the Rescue and Evacuation Department of the US Sigilry Corps, flying wounded and dying soldiers from the front lines back to the field hospitals." It is important to note that the flying she did was without the assistance of an aircraft. Special glyphs and chemicals, when employed by a talented sigilrist, did the trick. Now she is the County Philosopher and she responds to calls for help in all kinds of situations. Robert can fly, but, as a male, he isn't considered talented enough to act officially as his mother's field assistant and is, therefore, relegated to mostly clerical duties. Only occasionally is he able to go out with her for emergencies.
More than anything, Robert wants to be a member of Rescue & Evac, the Corps' traditionally elite all-female unit, as his mother had been. As unlikely a happening as that seems to be, Robert hopes he can at least enlist in the army. Now that the United States has finally joined the war against the Germans and everyone else is enlisting, that seems possible. However, his mother had him exempted as essential personnel so he can continue to help her. Of course, fate and circumstances intervene to change the course of this outstanding young sigilrist's life. After performing heroically while helping his mother with a particularly difficult and dangerous rescue mission, Robert is inspired and encouraged to apply to college to study empirical philosophy. He is accepted by Radcliffe – all female except for some contingency students like Robert – and in September 1917 he leaves home for the first time.
Trying to make his way from the Boston transporter arena to his lodgings at Radcliffe, he meets Gloxinia Jacobi ("You call me Jake, under pain of having your pants set on fire when you have your back turned") a most auspicious acquaintance for him to make. "She was the first of two exceptional, lifelong friends I made that day. I met the second only a few minutes later." His roommate, Freddy Unger, owns 138 bow ties and can't use sigils to save himself, but he is brilliant.
It is so much fun to meet all of the interesting characters that people Robert's new world and to follow their exciting, fun and sometimes dangerous exploits. Miller has done a clever and entertaining job of creating that world using actual history as his framework and overlaying it with the world of empirical philosophy that is rich in detail and development. This is a smart, funny book that pulls you in and keeps you going while also delivering sly social commentary.
– Carole O'Brien