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Review of The Wings Upon Her Back by

The Wings Upon Her Back

by Samantha Mills

There’s a now-classic sketch from comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb called “Are We the Baddies?”. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it, but to spoil the bit, it’s about two SS officers having a conversation on the front line in which it gradually dawns on them that they might be the bad guys in this war. Involving Nazis in your comedy is always a dicey proposition, but Mitchell and Webb pull it off: the sketch illustrates how challenging it can be to break the cognitive dissonance required to rationalize one’s place in human suffering on a mass scale. The Wings Upon Her Back does the same thing. Through an intimate story told across two times, Samantha Mills illustrates how it’s harder to stand up to fascism when every step towards that fascism felt logical and just at the time. I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for my review.

Zemolai has spent the past decades of her life as a Winged. She flies through the air on mechanical wings attached to her body via implants. This technology is a gift from the gods, specifically the Mecha god, one of the five who sleep watchfully over Zemolai’s city. At the start of the novel, Zemolai makes a tragic mistake that leads to her downfall. Cast out of her paradise, she finds herself the unwilling companion of the rebels she has spent so long despising. Mills intersperses these chapters with a look back at who Zemolai was before she was Winged: Zenya, a descendant of scholars who dreamed of flying and set her sights on being a warrior who could protect her city.

Mills doesn’t pull punches here. This book is laser-focused, restricting its perspective almost entirely to Zemolai or her younger self, Zenya. The parallel storytelling drives home the central theme with startling clarity: Zenya is idealistic and optimistic, driven to impress Vodaya at all costs, devoted to the mission; Zemolai is bitter, tired, divided, and eventually resentful of Vodaya’s deceit. Like two ships passing in the night, Zenya’s radicalization proceeds apace with Zemolai’s deprogramming. The result is a kind of synergy foreshadowed by one of the city’s scholars: we are who we always were, all our selves across all points of our existence. She is Zemolai and Zenya, even if it takes her a while to recognize this.

You’ve seen elements of Zemolai’s story in plenty of media before. The prisoner who eventually comes around to the side of good, the face turn, is a common enough trope, particularly in science fiction and fantasy. So Zemolai’s gruff, half-hearted cooperation with Galiana and the others feels familiar. However, it has been a while (if ever) that I’ve read this story from the prisoner’s point of view. To have such a direct and personal audience to someone slowly being deradicalized is a fascinating experience. As the cracks appear in Zemolai’s faith in the mission, her desperation becomes palpable. It’s hard to come to terms with one’s complicity in causing suffering.

It’s also hard to write such a flawed protagonist. It’s easy to write a shining hero, someone who’s always trying to do the right thing (even if they misstep occasionally). That’s not Zemolai. She believes that what she is doing is for the greater good, of course. But each chapter, each decision, compromises Zenya’s connection to her past and her community a little more. She is such a sympathetic figure, but it’s hard to call her a good person, and that’s the point.

Few people set out to be the baddie. Zemolai certainly didn’t. Mills expertly depicts how Zenya endures the perfect storm: Vodaya’s manipulations, Zenya’s idealism, the secretive politics of the city’s most powerful, etc. (The nature of the gods lurks in the backdrop, a tantalizing mystery but not one that ultimately matters all that much to the overall plot.) All of Zemolai’s pain, particularly the deterioration of her relationship with Vodaya, is so bold on the page. I was really invested in seeing this story through to the end, and I really like where Mills chooses to end it.

This is a tight, contained novel with an excellent setting and a strong protagonist who can carry this story on her shoulders, much like she carried her wings for twenty years. In a time where we need to reflect more on our own complicity (those of us who live in countries that benefit from companies exploiting child labour in Congo, or countries that fund genocide), The Wings Upon Her Back offers a potent combination of admonishment and hope. You can’t wipe your sins away simply by announcing you’ve had a change of heart. You can’t excuse away your actions by pointing to the influences that shaped you into that person. But it is never too late to make a choice, to turn around, to embrace that past self that has been inside you all along.

I picked up The Wings Upon Her Back because I was intrigued by the idea of mechanical angels protecting a city. I got so much more than I bargained for: a story of fascism and abuse, of resilience and rebuilding, of loss and pain and sorrow. This is a poignant but worthwhile read, one I highly recommend when you are ready for it.


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