The Wings Upon Her Back

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Pub Date 23 Apr 2024 | Archive Date Not set

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[STAR] “A triumphant debut novel.” —Booklist, starred review
[STAR] “An absolute must-read.” —
Kirkus, starred review
[STAR] “Intricate and intriguing." —
Publishers Weekly, starred review
[STAR] “Complex and haunting.” —
Library Journal, starred review

In this gripping debut novel from acclaimed Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus Award-winning author Samantha Mills, a disgraced soldier fights to make sense of her world and the gods who abandoned it. The Wings Upon Her Back is an action-packed, devastating exploration of the brutal costs of zealous loyalty.

Zenya was a teenager when she ran away to join the mechanically-modified warrior sect. She was determined to earn mechanized wings and protect the people of Radezhda, the city she loved. Under the strict tutelage of a mercurial, charismatic leader, Vodaya, Zenya finally became Winged Zemolai.

But after twenty-six years of service, Zemolai is disillusioned with her role as an enforcer in an increasingly fascist state. After one tragic act of mercy, she is brutally cast out and loses everything she worked for. As Zemolai struggles for her life, she is must question her sect, their leader, and even the gods themselves.

[STAR] “A triumphant debut novel.” —Booklist, starred review
[STAR] “An absolute must-read.” —
Kirkus, starred review
[STAR] “Intricate and intriguing." —
Publishers Weekly, starred review
[STAR] “Complex...

A Note From the Publisher

Samantha Mills is a Locus, Sturgeon, and Nebula Award-winning author who has published a dozen short stories since 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and others. Mills has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She has a Master’s Degree in Information and Library Science, and she is a trained archivist focusing on helping local historical societies and research libraries. Mills lives in Southern California. The Wings Upon Her Back is her debut novel.

Samantha Mills is a Locus, Sturgeon, and Nebula Award-winning author who has published a dozen short stories since 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange...

Advance Praise

“A frightening look at the cost of war and unquestioning loyalty against the backdrop of a gorgeous secondary world. Mills perfectly blends real-world horrors with the fantastic in this wonderful novel.” —A. C. Wise, author of Wendy, Darling

[STARRED REVIEW] “In the city-state of Radezha—a towering metropolis constructed vertically to reach the five slumbering gods in the heavens—discontent is stirring. Devoted to the mecha god, patron of the city’s warriors and keeper of the law, Zemolai has spent 26 years rising in the ranks of her sect until she receives the ultimate sign of devotion: mechanized wings attached to ports along her back. One fateful evening, returning home from a brutal, month-long mission patrolling Radezha’s borders, Winged Zemolai performs a single act of mercy that results in the destruction of everything she has ever known. Zemolai is shunned by her god, and the wings are ripped from her back, leaving her permanently disfigured. With no one to turn to but the rebels that she unknowingly saved, the Once-Winged Zemolai’s disillusionment continues to grow as her eyes are opened to the increasingly fascist state she has spent her life defending. The Wings upon Her Back is a triumphant debut novel. The complex narrative examines the intricacies of blind devotion, self-image, and the hidden motivations behind martial control. For fans of C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken looking for a timely perspective on the human cost of destructive nationalism.” —Booklist

[STARRED REVIEW] “Mills debuts with an intricate and intriguing science fantasy set in the divided city of Radezhda. Five sects each serve one of five gods who sleep behind portals floating high above the land. After a brutal civil war, the mecha sect, a group of human warriors with their nerves wired into mechanical wings that allow them to fly, reigns supreme, led by power-hungry Winged Vodaya. After Vodaya’s closest confidant, Winged Zemolai, returns home tired and aching from a month of border patrol, she makes what is perhaps the worst mistake of her life: letting a spy go free. Cast out of the sect and left to die on the streets of Radezhda, Zemolai is miraculously saved by another sect, forcing her to decide whether to beg Vodaya’s forgiveness or betray her people. Toggling between two timelines, Mills juxtaposes Zemolai’s adult regrets and childhood hopes to devastating effect. Much like the winged warriors it follows, the story begins on the ground and takes flight as the characters attempt higher stakes battles and plans, eventually achieving a complete aerial view of Zemolai’s life and the full history of Radezhda. This cathartic adventure will stay with readers long after the final page.” —Publishers Weekly

[STARRED REVIEW] “VERDICT Mills’s debut novel is complex and haunting, filled with beautiful prose and timely themes of political and religious upheaval and personal journeys.” —Library Journal

[STARRED REVIEW] "An absolute must-read—to paraphrase a line from the novel, fantasy fans will find themselves in literary heaven.” —Kirkus

“A fierce, aching battle cry of a book, both cinematically epic and painfully intimate. Mills has crafted a striking world of sleeping gods, disillusioned revolutionaries, and metal wings—and from it, she wrenches equal amounts of love and pain.” —Julie Leong, author of The Teller of Small Fortunes

“The Wings Upon Her Back is a masterful fantasy novel in which a powerful woman confronts the threats of fascism, zealous faith, and disillusionment.” —Foreword

“Every sentence beautifully written, her worldbuilding is both refreshing and captivating.” —Charlie N. Holmberg author of Spellbreaker

“An intense, astute, and moving tale of redemption, by turns relentlessly grim and courageously hopeful.” —Kate Elliott, author of Servant Mage

“I’ve been hoping for a novel from Samantha Mills for years, ever since first stumbling upon her short story ‘Strange Waters.’ The Wings Upon Her Back didn’t disappoint.” —C. L. Clark, author of The Unbroken

“A gripping, gorgeous exploration of the perils of worshipping gods and humans alike.” —Emet North, author of In Universes

“Mills weaves a deft and jagged narrative of choices and consequences, raw and real and heartbreaking.” —K. Eason, author of The Thorne Chronicles

“Samantha Mills has crafted a truly innovative world filled with deeply flawed, compelling characters. A thought-provoking and achingly beautiful story of faith, doubt, regret, and redemption.” —Amy Avery, author of The Longest Autumn

“A shatteringly beautiful, harrowing, and glorious tale of faith and disillusionment, violence and redemption.An exceptional book.”
 —Maria Haskings, author of Wolves and Girls

“Mills has created a science fantasy masterpiece, every bit as brilliant and trenchant as copper wings glinting on the horizon.” —Wulfe Wulfemeyer, Raven Books

“Fast, fun, and set in a brilliant science fantasy world.” —Grimdark Magazine

“A frightening look at the cost of war and unquestioning loyalty against the backdrop of a gorgeous secondary world. Mills perfectly blends real-world horrors with the fantastic in this wonderful...

Marketing Plan

  • National marketing plan to include prepublication endorsements including targeting reviews and interviews to include NPR, the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Review of Science Fiction, Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle 
  • Author tour with regional and national author appearances and readings at trade shows and genre conventions to include the World Science Fiction Convention, Comic-Con, and Dragon-Con 
  • Online features to include cover reveal, Instagram/Storygram tour, blog tour, and author and publisher social media campaign
  • Print and digital ARC distribution via Goodreads, NetGalley, and Edelweiss+
  • Planned book giveaways on Goodreads, SF Signal, and other online outlets
  • National marketing plan to include prepublication endorsements including targeting reviews and interviews to include NPR, the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Review of Science Fiction...

Available Editions

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ISBN 9781616864146
PRICE $18.95 (USD)

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Average rating from 33 members

Featured Reviews

This is a deftly woven story of the protagonist's fall into conspiracy theory and the heinous actions they make because of it, and the difficulty of admitting to being wrong once they're so far inside--an all-too-relevant tale. It's well-told and deeply layered, with a protagonist you'll love even as you see them making wrong decisions again and again. I rooted so hard for Zenya to see the truth, but couldn't fault her for keeping to what she thought was the "proper and righteous way," even as I mourned for her, and hoped for an eventual realization of truth.

While the book was difficult to read at times (due to its relevance), it was gorgeously written with prose that flew like those gleaming wings of copper. Ultimately, though, it's a book of hope. Hope that one CAN see through the charade, that one CAN chose the correct path even after traveling so far down the wrong one. Yet it isn't blithely simplistic, either. Zenya doesn't get an easy path simply because she sees the truth; instead we're allowed to see that the satisfaction of doing the right thing, even so late in life, is the balm the soul needs to be at peace. The amazing ending is well worth the journey taken. A highly recommended read.

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The cover is what drew me in and I’m so glad I was able to read this. It had a great overall tale of redemption and the use of science-fantasy elements to the story. The characters worked with what I wanted from this story and glad I was able to read this. Samantha Mills writes a great tale and can’t wait for more from the author.

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I received an ARC of this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What do you do when the gods you worship, the gods whose love you crave, turn their faces away from you?

The Wings Upon Her Back is a fierce, aching battle cry of a book, both cinematically epic and painfully intimate. Samantha Mills has crafted a striking world of sleeping gods, disillusioned revolutionaries, and metal wings -- and from it, she wrenches equal amounts of love and pain.

The book is simultaneously a thrilling, action-packed tale of revolution and mecha-battles between warring factions -- but also, at its heart, a searingly raw look at how different people claw their ways out (or don't) from abusive relationships -- with a mentor, with a loved one, or even with a god. It's a story about disillusionment, about rationalizing terrible actions, and about finding the difference between love and loyalty, leadership and control. While reading, I felt as though my chest were constricted for much of the book, but ultimately found it deeply cathartic.

I would describe this book as a triumphant cocktail of Fonda Lee's Untethered Sky x the Divine Cities trilogy x Some Desperate Glory. A stunning debut.

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THE WINGS UPON HER BACK is the debut novel by Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus Award winner Samantha Mills. Mills won all four of those awards last year for her short story "Rabbit Test". There was an itch at the back of my mind that needed to be scratched, so I did a bit of digging around and found that she had a story in "The New Voices of Science Fiction", edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman, published back in 2019. So, she's been around for at least a little while. Based on "Rabbit Test" and now THE WINGS UPON HER BACK, I believe she is going to be around for a very long time.

The setting for the story is the city of Radezhda which was founded by five gods, each of whom brought a different gift, a different discipline, to the city. Each god helped to bring prosperity and advancement to the people of Radezhda. As is the way of things, the five gods didn't always agree on things, but together they helped bring progress and improvements to the city. Until one day, the gods left the city, going high into the sky and falling into a deep sleep. The disciples of each of the gods all had something in common: the desire to determine why the gods had left them. Each of the five disciplines built skyscraper-like towers in an attempt to reach up to their god and bring them back home. The leader of each faction is called the Voice, and those leaders are the only ones that get to talk to their gods, and infrequently at that.

Eventually, and again as is the way of things, without the leadership of the gods conflicts arose, and the city came to war with itself. As each of the factions had different viewpoints, the city was being torn apart by violence. The Mechas, a warrior sect originally tasked with the job of protecting the city from outsiders, added the task of protecting the city dwellers from themselves. The Voice of the Mechas is the ruthless and power-hungry Winged Vodaya.

Zenya, the true focus of the story, is a teenager in a family that is in the scholar sect. She is unsatisfied and unhappy being a scholar. Her goal is to join the Mecha sect, get her wings, and become one of the protecters of the city. She runs away from her family and joins the Mechas, and soon shows enough aptitude that Vodaya takes Zenya under her wing (no pun intended). Eventually Zenya earns her Wings and becomes the Winged Zemolai. As time wears on, Zemolai gets weary of the constant fighting and battles and, in a rare (as in never) show of mercy, lets a spy who infiltrated the Mecha sect from the Scholar sect, go free after she discovers his treachery. This gets her Wings torn away, and she is cast out on the street with nowhere to go.

The story is told in two different timelines. One covers Zenya's story, her background, and how she came to be one of the Winged. The other is Zemolai's story after she gets cast out of the Mecha sect, and how she comes to find out that things are significantly different than she thought they were while she was one of the Winged. But there are two additional sides to the novel. One is that THE WINGS UPON HER BACK is a straightforward action adventure story, complete with a maniacal, single minded leader who is blinded by her ambition and who tries to take complete control of her domain. The other is a story of discovery, of a person learning who they are after they've achieved their life's goals, who their friends really are, and what really is going on in the world around them, the world they thought they knew well but really didn't know at all.

It's early in 2024, and there are a lot of books yet to come, many of which will be terrific. Many will come from authors that have been in the field a long time, and authors that are new. But for me, THE WINGS UPON HER BACK is the best book I've read in 2024 so far. Sure, Samantha Mills has been around a few years now, but it appears that her star is just now starting to take off. If THE WINGS UPON HER BACK is any indication, Mills will be providing us with great reads for a long time. I look forward to what she'll be bringing us in the future.

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A shatteringly beautiful, harrowing, and glorious tale of faith and disillusionment, violence and redemption. Mills weaves a gripping tale about a place where mysterious beings, maybe gods or maybe something else, are worshipped, feared and adored by those in the city below. We follow Zenya who has spent her life serving what she thought was a just and righteous cause, but who now sees both her present and her past crumble. Zenya has been a loyal warrior, but now she has lost her way and more besides. Mills tells us the story of Zenya and her city by showing us both the past and present, connecting the pieces of a broken life, and a broken community. An exceptional book.

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This gripping science-fantasy novel tells the story of Zenya, a loyal warrior who finds herself in a crisis of faith. Zenya must fight to regain her place and begin her life again while questioning the events of her past.
The world-building in this novel is truly exceptional. Set in the city of Radezhda, we are introduced to a society where five gods lie mysteriously sleeping above the city. These gods once bestowed great technologies and wisdom, each inspiring the devotion of their own sect. However, when the gods turned away from humanity, their followers built towers to the heavens to find out why. This collective grief eventually leads to desperation and war between the sects.
Zenya, our protagonist, is a strong and determined character. As a teenager, she ran away from home to join the mechanically-modified warrior sect, determined to earn her mechanized wings and protect her people and city. Under the strict tutelage of a mercurial and charismatic leader, Zenya becomes Winged Zemolai. However, after twenty-six years of service, Zemolai becomes disillusioned with her role as an enforcer in an increasingly fascist state. After one tragic act of mercy, she is cast out and loses everything she has worked for.
As Zemolai fights for her life, she begins to understand the true nature of her sect, her leader, and the gods themselves. This journey of self-discovery is both heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. The author does an excellent job of exploring the costs of zealous faith, brutal war, and unquestioning loyalty. One of the standout elements of this novel is the complex and diverse cast of characters. Each character, from the enigmatic leader to the other members of the sect, is well-developed and adds depth to the story. The relationships between the characters are also well-written and add an emotional layer to the plot.
Overall, this book is a must-read for fans of science-fantasy and would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a unique and immersive reading experience.

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I received an advance copy via NetGalley.

A unique science fiction setting provides the backdrop for winged warriors and religio-political intrigues in Mills's fantastic debut.

Zenya is in her forties. Constant aches and pains plague her, but even more, she's left bitter and disillusioned by decades of war on behalf of her mecha sect. When she extends mercy to a worker with an illegal religious icon, she's caught and quickly persecuted, stripped of her beloved wings and her very identity. Her 'rescue' by a band of rebels seems more a curse than a blessing as she's asked to betray everything she hold dear. Chapters alternate between the present and the past, highlighting the heartbreaking contrast between a young, hopeful Zenya and her embittered present self.

I could praise the depth of worldbuilding here and the gorgeousness of the winged battle scenes, but the most brilliant aspect is the psychological manipulation and warfare that is depicted through the book. Zenya is, truly, taken in by a religious cult with a charismatic letter, and is groomed to be a war machine who commits truly horrific deeds. There are a lot of books that depict the redemption of someone young, but that difficult path feels more real, more tragic, more beautiful, when through the eyes of someone who is older and utterly broken.

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This is a beautiful meditation on the nature of faith, the dangers of unconditional loyalty, and what it means to question your most basic understanding of reality. I loved Zenya and the writing strikes the exact right note.

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*I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for the free book*

I absolutely loved "The Wings Upon Her Back". While it is scifi-fantasy-ish (mechas!!!) it was mostly about disillusionment and a military member losing her faith after decades of service. It's also a tale of fascism, power struggles, and how it never helps to put people into boxes and expect them to stay there. The book was easy to read, the prose was compelling, the characters interesting even though I did not trust the golden general from the beginning. I would like a sequel now, please? Yes?

5 stars

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Once there were five Gods, each with their own following. A god for the workers, the farmers, the engineers, the scholars, and the warriors. Several centuries ago the Gods returned to Heaven, entering a mysterious sleep, and leaving man to fend for themselves. In their absence the five sects have struggled to work together, breeding suspicion, resentment, and war.

For as long as Zemolai can remember, she’s dreamed of flight. To be a member of the Winged, the mechanically-modified soliders of the warrior sect. However, after over two decades of battle, drugs, and her role as an enforcer, she finds her faith flagging. For these reasons, she is driven to an act of mercy, one that gets her cast out of her sect and stripped of her wings. Left to die, she is rescued by members of the resistance, and with their help she begins to uncover the truth about her religion, her leader, and the Gods themselves.

This was such a unique story and I had such a great experience reading it. The concept itself is original and the world building is fantastic. I loved that the author tended to be very vague on physical characteristics and descriptions, the only exceptions being if these things added to the characters back story. It left you free to imagine them as you will, and for me it gave them more life.

𝘈𝘵 𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵, 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘣𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵. 𝘐𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘯𝘦’𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥𝘷𝘪𝘦𝘸 𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘯𝘦’𝘴 𝘪𝘥𝘰𝘭𝘴, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘧𝘢𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮.

This book is narrated from two different points in the MC’s life: as Zenya, the girl who wanted to fly, and Zemolai, the warrior who fell. Both narratives were so relatable. I recognized a younger version of myself in Zenya as she finds her faith and pushes away any doubts for the joy of belonging, and again when my heart broke with Zemolai, as the reality of her world is laid before her and she has to learn to forgive herself for her past. I was honestly inspired by her, and only hope I can be that brave the next time I’m forced to accept a truth that hurts.

There are so so many layers to this book, from religion to faith, that I could honestly talk about it all day. This story is so so powerful and I know will be with me for a long time. I really hope you, if you’ve read this far, you’ll give it a chance ❤️
Overall: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Pub Date: April 22, 2024

Thank you NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for this free e-reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Amazing!! This book is really entertaining it has everything to keep you entertained, Well written the story line keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next , every chapter is a new surprise, I will definetly recommend to everyone!

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The Wings Upon Her Back weaves a highly personal, powerful story of disillusionment and redemption with the grand scale of a society under a theological crisis. A people built a city for its gods, and then the gods went to sleep. Did the gods abandon us?. What would you give to feel the reciprocation of an unrequited love? Who do you become once meeting your heroes disillusions the path you have followed and you must make your own choice to find your own? Mills answers (or sometimes doesn't answer) with a masterful story grappling with faith and addiction and abuse, and shows us hope and optimism and the exhilarating freedom of choice. The writing quality stands atop a solid story foundation augmenting its strengths and polishing the few rougher parts. This is an early contender for one of my favorite reads of the year and I really hope to see some buzz!

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