My Favorite Bit: Samantha Mills talks about THE WINGS UPON HER BACK

Samantha Mills is joining us today to talk about her novel, The Wings Upon Her Back. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Zenya was a teenager when she ran away from her home in war-torn Radezha, intending to join the mechanically-modified warrior sect. She was determined to earn mechanized wings and protect the people and city she loved. Under the strict tutelage of a mercurial, charismatic leader, Zenya became Winged Zemolai. But after twenty-six years of service, Zemolai is disillusioned with her role as an enforcer in an increasingly fascist state as she begins to understand the true nature of her sect, her leader, and the gods themselves.

What’s Samantha’s favorite bit?

I am an archivist by day, and that work periodically creeps into my writing – the way history is recorded, the way it is interpreted and accessed, the way it is lost. The Wings Upon Her Back did not have an archival subplot when I began writing, but by the time I finished the book, it had archives, a heretic scholar, and a fight over the right to publish material at odds with official state history.

Which is all to say: my favorite bit is an essay.

Let me backtrack.

The book takes place in a small, isolated city-state blessed by five gods. The gods bestowed great technology upon their followers before retreating into perpetual sleep, sparking an abandonment crisis that would last generations. It is about intergenerational trauma, disillusionment, characters caught in a terrible loop of hurt people hurting people—and it is about history. The myths that evolve over time; the hurts we cover up because they are too terrible to bear; the way we can look back on our own history years later, and re-interpret our experiences with the clarity of hindsight.

History is not static, because we are not static.

I had already set myself the challenge of writing two timelines, braiding together my main character’s past and present as she falls in thrall to a charismatic leader and then must try to untangle the damage they’ve done. And I decided to add a sneaky third timeline, told in chapter epigraphs and interludes, because this story had been repeating itself long before poor Zemolai got involved.

I settled on a plot structure of five parts. There were already five gods, five religious sects, militant and rebel groups divided into five-units (four limbs and a head!). So, I wrestled the story into twenty-six chapters and an epilogue: four sets of five and then a final sequence of six when the pattern breaks. I crafted five interludes to mark the pivot points, which form a seamless essay when you line them up.

This essay is the heart of the story, its thesis statement. It is, on the one hand, a physical artifact within the world of the book: the freshly-rediscovered work of a long-dead heretic scholar, which the militant sect in charge of the city is determined to suppress. It also parallels the journey of the main character, laying out a sequence of small arguments that, when taken all together, lead to an epiphany that would have changed her life if only she’d allowed herself to face it sooner. As a result, it has a load of my favorite lines in the book.

What would we do to keep the affection of a god? The answer is anything, anything.

Zemolai’s desire for the approval of her idol is the city’s desire for the approval of their gods. The character and the city are entangled—in the end, I couldn’t tell a story about one without the other. The essay at the heart of the book is a little gift from me to anyone who has ever needed to hear it: you are good enough. You always were.

Was this extra indulgence entirely necessary? No. Do I love it anyway? You’d better believe it.


Book Link


Blue Sky



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 MagazineBeneath Ceaseless SkiesStrange HorizonsEscape 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.

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