REVIEW: The Wings Upon Her Back by Samantha Mills

In The Wings Upon Her Back by Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus Award-winning Samantha Mills, Winged Zemolai, a winged warrior in servitude to a warrior god makes a mistake. She is tired, her bones ache as much as her soul; her life of soldiering sits upon her like a heavy blanket. And that one poor decision tears her away from her life and from the leader she idolises.

The Wings Upon her Back is told in two timelines. In the first, Zenya (not yet Winged Zemolai) is born into the scholar god sect, one of five sects the people of her hermit-nation have divided themselves into to follow the increasingly absent teachings of the five gods who watch over them. In the second timeline we see Zemolai as a war-weary warrior who left her family and the scolar sect to obtain her wings and fight in the sky. Her body is falling apart, she is sick of the fighting but knows nothing else and sees no other value in herself, and who, in a moment of weakness (from a zealotry perspective) makes a decision that irreparably changes her life.

Across these two timelines, her progression through training as Zenya (to become Winged Zemolai) with her mentor and leader, when juxtaposed against the person she becomes in the events after the mistake which upends her life, is an excellently grown story. It slowly reveals how Zenya became this world-weary warrior while also exploring the inner turmoil of the people of her city driven by infighting between the leaders of the sects.

While the commentary on isolationist governments (probably some of our democratic ones, too) and religious zealotry is a fun read, The Wings Upon Her Back is really a story about the abuse between two people, and what can happen when you idolise somebody and making that person happy becomes the core of your your own happiness. I think that most of us have been there at some point in our lives, in some form or other—in our relationships with a friend, a boss, a partner—and when memories of those times in my life come to mind while reading, those scenes in the book really hit home.

I also really liked the way the author gave an insight towards the end as to why Zemolai’s leader is who they are—what drove them to this point. It showcases how this behaviour can be generational trauma that just keeps being passed down from leader to leader, poor decisions compounding as each leader is too afraid to try another way. And while Zemolai and the bolt baby’s decisions–as they grew their understanding of each other–didn’t always land with me in the moment, I think the author took me on a really enjoyable ride through her world.

Zemolai is a character style that I love more the older I get—that kind of ageing warrior with a cupboard of bad decisions locked away, the sounds of the door breaking open almost masked by the sounds of crunching hip and knee joints—and that certainly helped in my enjoyment of the book. I think if you’re a grimdark fan and that kind of character appeals to you as well, then this novel is going to tick quite a few boxes for you, too.

Fast, fun, and set in a brilliant science fantasy world, The Wings Upon Her Back by Samantha Mills is one of those really good books that reaches into your own life experience to draw upon memories that drive your emotional reaction to the story.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.