Episode 171: Samantha Mills – The Wings Upon Her Back

A chat with Locus, Sturgeon, and Nebula Award-winning author Samantha Mills about her debut novel, The Wings Upon Her Back.





Amazon Links for The Wings Upon Her Back

About the Book

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 must question her sect, their leader, and even the gods themselves.

Praise for The Wings Upon Her Back

[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] “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

About Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills is a multiple award-winning author living in Southern California. She has published a dozen short stories, appearing in Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod and others. In addition to winning the Nebula, Locus, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial awards for her short story “Rabbit Test” in 2023, Sam has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, made the Locus Recommended Reading List and the BSFA long list multiple times, and was included in the best-of anthologies The New Voices of Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2023.

She grew up in Southern California, where she still lives with her family and cats. She graduated from the University of Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Pre- and Early Modern Literature, and received a Master’s in Information and Library Science from San Jose State University. In the other half of her life, she is a trained archivist specializing in primary documents, with a particular focus on helping local historical societies and research libraries preserve and manage their collections.

When Sam isn’t working, writing, or taking care of children, she’s watching B-movies, binding books, and crocheting stuffed animals.