This is one of the more unique stories I’ve read in a long time. Not only in its monumental telling of two families divided by an ocean and spanning many generations, but also in its endeavor to look through one of the most painful events in history, American slavery, including its causes and ramifications, and find the lives that made up this heartbreaking history. Many chapters of this novel were indeed difficult to read, but Gyasi did an unbelievable job weaving each character’s story with the next, steadily building to its final outcome.
First we meet Effia and Esi, two separated sisters growing up along the Gold Coast of Africa during the late 1700’s. Effia is married off to a white slave trader and begins raising her family in a castle, while, unbeknownst to her, Esi is trapped in the castle’s dungeon and eventually sold off to be a slave in the new-born United States. What follows is a story from each generation of their descendants as one family is thrown into slavery, and the other must face the conflicts of the Fante and Ashanti wars in pre-named Ghana. Telling this sweeping story was quite an undertaking for Gyassi to take on, I was surprised to learn this was her first novel, as it has the craftsmanship of an extremely practiced author.
Each chapter of this book is a new character, vacillating back and forth between the families. Every character experiences some aspect of the suffering brought upon the world by slavery and war. This novel is epic in its depiction of slavery’s history through so many different lenses, and I personally enjoyed the variation of characters, as the story seeks to create a greater narrative. I would recommend this book for readers interested in African-American and African history, those wanting to learn more about the injustices not only of slavery, but also of the Jim Crow era, or anyone interested in reading complex, haunting historical fiction.
The Philosopher’s Flight creates an alternate history where Emperical Philosophy (which looks very much like magic), is practiced and taught as regularly as Geometry or French, its use ranging from growing larger tomatoes to gruesomely murdering ones enemies. It’s also mainly practiced by women: in the matriarchy of Emperical Philosophy men are treated as not-quite-as-capeable and are not allowed the same opportunities or to move up the ranks with the same ease as their female counterparts. Hmm, this seems familiar…
The novel is set in the midst of World War I, and our narrator is Montana teenager Robert Weekes. His mother was well-known for her daring bravery for flying wounded soldiers from the front lines of battle for the Rescue and Evacuation (R&E) Department of the US Sigilry Corps, the Emperical Philosophy branch of the United States Armed forces. Robert dreams of joining the R&E, but doesn’t have a shot (remember the aforementioned matriarchy) until a chance of luck and a brush with death lands him with a scholarship to Radcliffe, a prestigious Boston College where the various branches of philosophy are taught. The book launches from there as Robert encounters many obstacles and enemies, but gathers support as he strives towards his goal.
This details and complex characters of this book are woven carefully with the creation of an alternate universe that is the same, yet not quite ours. This alternative US history makes it a good read for both lovers of fantasy as well as historical fiction. Miller subtly threads themes of war, violence, friendship, politics, and even feminism while keeping the overall tone of this book light and fast-paced. There is also a charming love story so this novel really does appeal to a wide-ranging audience.
The book’s use of magic to fight in real wars, mention of actual historical figures, and creation of a complex form of magic reminded me a lot of “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell“, although at 400 pages it is long, but not quite as a long as Susanna Clarke’s 2004 volume. The Philosopher’s Flight is in the works for a sequel, which is a well-deserved opportunity for first time novelist Tom Miller, and a treat for his readers.