New Release Review: The Philosopher Kings

Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings (2015)

PhilosopherKingsRejoice, readers of The Just City! The sequel to Jo Walton’s fantasy about gods and humans attempting to create Plato’s Republic in ancient Greece is here, and you’ll be wanting to snap it up to find out what happened after that book’s dramatic ending. (If you haven’t read The Just City, go and read it now, and then come back. This one doesn’t really work as a standalone.)

Naturally, Jo Walton doesn’t do with this sequel what you might expect. Rather than starting at the point at which she left off, she skips quite a few years during which the one Just City has split into several, according to different factions’ ideas of what the experiment should look like. Pytheas (who is actually the god Apollo) has sired a number of semi-divine children, including a daughter with his beloved Simmea, and as the novel opens Simmea herself has been killed in one of the art raids that have unfortunately become common between the cities. Spurred by grief at this outrage, Apollo and his daughter Arete become part of an expedition to find the exiles who fled the City on the ship called Goodness, whom they suspect might have played a role in the raid. But what they find changes everything. . .

If The Just City sought to bring a philosophical thought experiment to life, The Philosopher Kings brings us a new perspective on mythology. Apollo’s children are discovering and growing into their powers, with the potential to become a whole new pantheon. There’s a rather clever variant on one of the more obscure and puzzling myths of Apollo, and a rationale for Plato’s myth of a golden age (from which his idea of the Republic was drawn). There’s even a deus ex machina at the end in classical dramatic style, but with a decidedly modern twist.

The triple narration of the earlier book continues, with Arete taking over Simmea’s part. Her sections are most numerous, and her coming of age in the new, splintered Republic is the main thread of the story. Apollo continues to learn from his experiences as a human in surprising ways, and Maia, now growing old, reflects on how the effort to make the Just City has and has not come to fruition. There are many unresolved threads from the first book to follow up on, as well as a plethora of new ideas and imaginative leaps to encompass, but Walton carries it all off with aplomb. The narrative drive is not as strong or absorbing as in that first venture, but the difference seems natural — it’s the difference between the exciting stage of building things up, and the difficult but necessary stage of rebuilding after one’s first ideas haven’t worked out as planned.

If the series carries on, my personal wish is for more subtlety in the religion department; the demigods are too much like newly minted superheroes for my taste, and Christianity is written off as “silly” in a cavalier way that I find unworthy of a true philosopher. Still, Walton continues to entertain and enthrall us with the sheer energy of her inventiveness. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.


10 thoughts on “New Release Review: The Philosopher Kings

  1. This is such a marvelous series, and I’m so excited for the third book. And I loved the literal deus ex machina!

    Although I agree that Christianity is sometimes made to look silly (and hypocritical), I appreciated that so many people found the story compelling, even though it hadn’t even happened. There was some complexity there, especially in the discussions about mercy and incarnation. I think having one character be a god, who knows what “really” happened or will happen, makes it hard not to be dismissive of different gods.


    1. Certainly there’s a lot of complexity in the exploration of moral questions. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what bothered me, probably I would need a reread to articulate it better.


  2. I had not heard of Just City before but what a fascinating concept it seems to be.

    Plato’s Republic Republic is such an important and fascinating piece of our culture and putting it into practice, at least in the imagination, seems like such as interesting concept.

    I stress in the “imagination” as at least in my opinion, on some levels the society imagined in the original work seems to exhibit some of the worst aspects of a totalitarian state. Of course i understand that it is a bit more complicated then that.

    I want to read The Just City, I am putting it on my list.


    1. Indeed, the totalitarian aspects come to light when the experiment is put into practice. I will be very interested in your thoughts if you do read the book.


  3. I’m looking forward to reading this, and I’ll be interested to see how she handles religion. The book’s so thoughtful; it would be a shame to have it be unthoughtful about this aspect of humanity.

    (I hear the ending of Philosopher Kings is totally whackadoo. Looking FORWARD to it.)


    1. It’s tricky when one is looking at ancient gods through a modern fictional lens. I’m perhaps hyper sensitive about that so it might not bother others so much.


  4. I don’t know why I haven’t heard of The Just City either, but I’m also putting it onto my TBR. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!


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