The Wings Upon Her Back

The Wings Upon her Back by Samantha Mills

Tachyon Publications, out on 23 April 2024

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

All of us fall victim to illusions at some point in our lives, from minor naivety to complete engrossment. As social creatures, we humans are prone to influences from outside – that’s what forms us. But what happens when the illusion is gone, and we face the stark reality of what has happened and what we’ve done under that influence? How do we reconcile with that? How do we get disillusioned? Samantha Mills’ The Wings Upon Her Back explores just that.

Zemolai, a faithful warrior of the mecha god who spent decades following her leader’s orders and patrolling the territory around Radezhda city to protect it from the outside, is in a crisis. She is tired, she got old, and the so-much-craved-in-her-youth wings are getting heavier and heavier. One day, after returning from a patrol to the warriors’ tower for a short break in her duty, she is in pain and irritated and decides to run an unscheduled inspection of the workers in the tower. Among the possessions of one of the workers, she finds an idol of a different god, a forbidden idol. She calls the worker to the quarters but cannot find it in herself to punish him – something in the man’s expression, the absence of pleading, his own weariness resonates with Zemolai. So, she gives him the idol and tells him to go and burn it. However, the man takes his time to warn his accomplices and is found sitting in front of the furnace with the idol in hand. It turns out there was a whole conspiracy in the tower. Zemolai is accused of abetting the traitors and is taken to trial by the mecha god. The god finds her guilty yet spares her life. The circuits for her wings are burnt down, and she is discarded next to the hospital in the city. Proud Zemolai chooses not to go to the hospital, and as the withdrawal from mechalin, a medicine that allowed her to have the ports for the wings and kept her fit, hits her, she is picked up by the rest of the traitors.

At first, the only thing Zemolai can think of is how she can get back. She plans ways to deliver the traitors to the warriors this time and fulfil her duty, even though deep down inside, she understands that she will not get her wings back. But as the situation unfolds, Zemolai finds more and more proof that her years of service were guided by an illusion, by her blind following of her leader, the mecha god’s Voice – Vodaya. And this promises to be an even more destructive withdrawal than that from the mechalin.

The story is told in two timelines – we follow Zemolai as she is cast down from the warrior’s towers, gets involved in the rebel’s plot and has to get down to what’s really going on in the warriors’ sect and the girl Zenya (Zemolai’s name before she joined the warriors) as she chooses to go against her father’s will and become a warrior instead of a scientist, her years of training, her admiration for Vodaya, who trains her, and the civil war that wrecks Radezhda city.

In some ways, the story is very claustrophobic. We barely leave Radezhda city; the warrior’s tower, the flats and tunnels where the rebels hide create an impression of rather small, constricting places. Even when Zemolai doesn’t have the wings anymore, you feel like they are still being clipped, the feathers pinched, pulled out, one by one, like the remnants of her hope, her belief. There is a lot of uncertainty – on a personal level, on the world level. Who are those gods? Why did they go to sleep? Why aren’t they responding to people anymore? What did humans do to lose their guidance? It’s all about the idols we create for ourselves. There is a lot of guilt and self-incrimination set against straightforward denial of any wrong on Vodaya’s part. As I read the story, the lyrics of one of my favourite songs by the band Poets of the Fall kept coming to mind – So how does it feel now? Tell me, can you let it go? The wrong you can’t undo. Sometimes, it is almost impossible to forgive oneself or remedy one’s mistakes, and the story shows us a character who tries to deal with just that.

The Wings Upon Her Back is a wonderful story, filled with chases, conspiracies and fights blended with personal crisis. It’s very human in nature, and I loved the whole concept of wings – mecha wings, which you need to master, a heavy (in the literal sense as well – the wings are weighty) price for being able to soar in the sky, their burden, their restrictions, the wiring which they need. All of these details resonate with the main themes of the story and serve as perfect metaphors and symbols.

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