New Release Review: The Fellowship

Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015)


Love them or hate them — and there are large camps on both sides — it’s undeniable that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien have had a huge impact on the imaginative landscape of the last century. Where did their tales of planetary travel, magical wardrobes, sinister rings, and elves, dwarves and hobbits come from? What were the sources of their Christian faith, and how was it expressed in their fiction and nonfiction? What do they still have to say to us in today’s post-modern, highly secular world?

To understand the Tolkien/Lewis phenomenon, it’s vital to see them in their context of friends, fellow academics, and colleagues, particularly the circle known as The Inklings, a semi-informal writers’ group that saw the genesis of many of their most important works. Two lesser-known members of the group, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, played crucial roles in its development, and particularly influenced Lewis as intellectual foils and sparring partners. In The Fellowship, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski explore the extraordinary creative ferment of the Inklings with zest, lucidity, and intelligence.

The Zaleskis are clearly in the friendly camp, but avoid idolizing their subjects excessively, bringing in some of their less savory sides while ultimately refraining from passing judgment. (Lewis lived for many years with a married older woman; the angelic Williams had a taste for sadism.) They adroitly juggle the stories of the four men and their overlapping paths toward Oxford, painting a fascinating picture of the flowering of a literary circle within the turbulent years of a world at war. Even in a book whose main section exceeds 500 pages, it’s not possible to exhaustively cover each life; some personal details are glossed over, the emphasis being on their “literary lives” as the subtitle states. But in general a fine balance is struck between the private and public sides of the Inklings, and much light is shed on the sources and reverberations of their work.

For any avid reader of any of these four writers, this is an essential and highly enjoyable book. Even those who disdain Lewis’s popular Christian apologetics or Tolkien’s Hobbit epic may, the Zaleskis hope, “come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.” That’s my hope, too, and my reason for continuing to hold these four writers as touchstones for my literary life.


New Release Review: In a Dark Wood

Joseph Luzzi, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love (2015)

Midway through his life’s journey, Joseph Luzzi found himself in a forest of seemingly impenetrable darkness. His pregnant wife, Katherine, had died as the result of a car accident, shortly after delivering their daughter Isabel by emergency caesarean. Unprepared for sudden single fatherhood, Luzzi wrapped himself in grief and in his work as a professor of Italian at Bard College, largely leaving the raising of Isabel to his close-knit Calabrian family. But as he shuttled back and forth between Bard and the childhood home in Rhode Island that he thought he’d left behind for academia, he found that his lifelong study of Dante’s Divine Comedy was speaking to the most urgent questions of his life. Heeding its message, he struggled to lift himself out of hell and into a new understanding of the real meaning of love.

In this memoir of his years of struggling through darkness into the light, structured around the three parts of Dante’s masterpiece (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), Luzzi writes with honesty and hard-gained self knowledge. He takes us along on his journey from the self-absorption of hell, through the purgatory of learning to forgive and trust again, and into the acceptance of responsibility that is the gateway to heaven and the only sure foundation for healthy relationships. His style is simple and direct, never pretentious or preachy, and allows us to enter into his story as if hearing it from a close friend. Without attempting to approach the artistic summits of his literary guide, Luzzi adds a humble footnote to the truths of the great epic: yes, this is part of what it means to be human.

Luzzi doesn’t spend as much time on Dante as I expected, based on his title. He chooses a few key moments and characters that provided him with illumination, as well as some aspects of the poet’s life, but most of the narrative has to do with his own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Given that these do fall into the archetypal pattern of the Commedia, descending into the ultimate pit of suffering as a necessary step toward true integration, the connection is valid enough.

I feel that my own experience has been enlarged through Luzzi’s willingness to articulate both his suffering and his joy, and am grateful that he opened his heart to share these difficult lessons with us.

This is the final stop on the TLC Book Tour for In a Dark Wood. Click on the link for more information on the tour.


In Brief: New releases for spring and summer

This holiday weekend seemed an appropriate time to mention some new releases that I haven’t had a chance to review in full, but recommend as summer reading. What are you looking forward to this season?

Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard
This is a follow-up to the bestselling memoir Lunch in Paris, but can definitely be read on its own. In this installment, the transplanted American author and her French husband leave the bustle of their beloved Paris for an atmospheric Provencal town. The trials of new motherhood and of being a foreigner in a proudly insular society provide some drama, but mostly this is merely an excuse to do some armchair traveling to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Each chapter concludes with several appropriate recipes; I haven’t tried them yet but they look doable and delicious.  
Release date: April 7, 2015 by Little, Brown

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude
A “golden age” murder mystery from the beautifully produced British Library Crime Classics series, which is being published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press. It was highly readable, and made good use of its Sussex chalklands setting, though I found the style somewhat creaky. Recommended for enthusiasts or collectors of the genre, if not a patch on Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey in my opinion.  
US reprint release date: May 5, 2015 from Poisoned Pen Press

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck
The era of “American Romanticism” is a fascinating chapter in literary history. This historical novel, written in the voice of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, the artist Sophia Peabody, brings it to life through one of the often-overlooked but essential women of the age. I enjoyed that aspect, though the overheated prose surrounding Nathaniel and Sophia’s love affair made me want to seek out some of the primary sources the author consulted to find out whether they really did think and talk like that.
Release date: May 5, 2015 from New American Library

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Rakoff’s memoir made me wonder what might have been … if I had taken the plunge into the New York publishing world after college as she did, only a few years after I graduated. It was fun to have the vicarious experience of life at an old-school literary agent, on the cusp of the technological revolution (they have only one computer for the whole office). On the other hand, I was glad that the experience of an incredibly horrible literary boyfriend was only vicarious.  
Paperback release date: May 12, 2015 from Vintage

Review copy source: ARCs and early finished copies from publishers. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

New Release Review: Victorian Fairy Tales

Michael Newton, ed., Victorian Fairy Tales (2015)


“If we wish to understand the Victorians, we should read their dreams,” says editor Michael Newton in his introduction to Victorian Fairy Tales. This impressive new one-volume collection goes a long way toward facilitating that goal. Along with the most important, influential, and frequently anthologized stories of the period, including “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, “The Rose and the Ring” by W.M. Thackeray, “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, and “The Golden Key” by George MacDonald, it collects some lesser-known and wonderful tales by Mary de Morgan, Andrew Lang, Laurence Housman, E. Nesbit and others. With its insightful introduction and excellent notes, it will be useful for students and scholars while remaining inviting and non-intimidating for the casual reader or enthusiast of the genre.

The tone of the tales varies widely, from comic verging on the burlesque (“The Rose and the Ring”) to melancholy verging on the maudlin (“The Wanderings of Arasmon” by Mary de Morgan). As Newton points out, “the fairy tale is the most eclectic of forms,” and this collection showcases its versatility. Some writers augment and expand on the rather spare and laconic style of the traditional fairy tale, giving it a lyrical and poetic flavor. Others take an amusing and lightly humorous tone, playing with the narrative conventions that have come down from the past, and using them as a way to both highlight and mask the very modern concerns that lurk beneath the surface.

Illustration by Walter Crane

A good example of the latter mode is “The Queen Who Flew,” an early tale by the great twentieth-century novelist Ford Madox Ford, which was one of the few stories that I hadn’t encountered before. A young queen beset by greedy regents and troublesome revolutionaries leaves her country behind thanks to a magical flower that enables her to fly. As she journeys to various other lands her experiences help to give her maturity and knowledge of what is truly valuable in life. This story could be read by a child, certainly, but there are depths of adult understanding wound into its seemingly casual and episodic narrative.

Many of the stories were profusely illustrated when first published, and though regrettably the pictures could not all be included, the few examples that punctuate the text give a sense of the artistic style of the day. I appreciated the chance to read more about the artists and even about the original bindings in the notes (though pictures would have been even better). A further notable feature of this volume is an appendix that collects four brief but essential essays on “What is a fairy tale?” by John Ruskin, Juliana Horiatia Ewing, George MacDonald, and Laurence Housman. These defend and articulate the power of a form that has often been dismissed as mere fodder for the uneducated. As Ewing says, fairy tales “treat, not of the corner of a nursery or a playground, but of the world at large, and life in perspective; of forces visible and invisible; of Life, Death, and Immortality.” The publishers put this statement on the back cover of the book; it could stand as a motto for lovers of the fairy tale in all its incarnations.

In short, whether you have an abiding love for or passing interest in the Victorian fairy tale, you’ll find what you are seeking in this splendidly produced book.

Publication date: May 1, 2015 


New Release Review: H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk (2015)


H Is for Hawk does what many of my favorite non-fiction books do: it makes connections between things and ideas that are surprising and genuine and painful, enriching us by raising our experience of life to a new level of consciousness. It reminds us what it means to be human, and stretches the limits of that definition.

The primary connection here is between Macdonald’s grief following the death of her father, and her decision to take on the training of a goshawk, a notoriously difficult task. Many other threads come into play, too, notably a reconsideration of T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and of its brilliant, wounded author. There’s a unique angle on history, too; the practice of falconry goes back to the dawn of civilization, and speaks to many of our most primal impulses and fears, casting light both on our hunger to survive, and on our impulse toward warfare and destruction.

Part of the fascination of falconry is that it evokes the age-old ritual magic of the hunter, who would put on skins or draw an animal over and over to try to become one with its essence. In her intense, grief-spurred communion with Mabel, her goshawk, Macdonald experiences the pull of this totemic magic. In vivid, striking prose she makes us feel what it is like to dissolve some of one’s humanity into the vastness of nature. But that is not, and cannot be the whole story, as she concludes: “In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” Her words enable us to go on that journey as well, and to emerge with a new perspective on grass, stones, trees, the complex web of all living and breathing things.

And as in her sorrow Helen lives and identifies with this alien creature, she finds her way back to who she is and how she can re-enter a life that seemed altogether broken. It’s an intimate, tender, fierce story, as beautiful and dangerous as the hawk that glows at its center.

Release date: March 3, 2015; originally published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in 2014


New Release Review: Echo

Pam Munoz Ryan, Echo (Scholastic, 2015)


Echo takes an unlikely candidate for bearing mysterious, magical powers of healing and protection — a harmonica — and weaves a surprisingly compelling tale around this humble instrument. This middle-grade novel tells three stories of young people during the years surrounding the Second World War, with music as the thread that inspires, sustains, and ultimately connects them. As the harmonica passes through the lives of Friedrich in Germany, Michael in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, it changes their lives in unexpected ways, though revelation of the ultimate results for good or ill is left till the very end.

I enjoyed the details of how the harmonica played a role in each story. Who knew there was a golden age of harmonica bands, or that these small pieces of wood and metal really saved lives in the war? Other bits of historical fact, like the fight against the unjust segregation of Mexican-Americans in California schools, are incorporated gracefully as well. Though I found Echo to suffer from a certain amount of oversimplification and stereotyping, featuring as it does an abundance of cartoon Nazis, plucky orphans, and deserving immigrants, there are also vividly drawn and memorable characters to take into one’s heart, as well as a moving plea for the vital importance of music in human life. Certainly, I will never look at a harmonica in the same way again.

I found it sometimes frustrating to be pulled out of one story into another just at a crucial moment, and would peek at the end to make sure everything was going to turn out all right. (Not very surprising spoiler: it does.) The closing pages wrap everything up neatly, and rather too quickly for all that has gone before. It would have felt more balanced if the final section had been given more weight, rather than resolving all the narrative tension in a few hasty flashbacks.

At nearly 600 pages, this looks like a formidable chunk of a book, but appearances are deceiving. I really don’t understand why publishers sometimes choose to set the type of middle-grade books at nearly easy-reader proportions, but I wish this wasteful and misleading practice would stop. In this case, don’t be intimidated by the page count; Echo will quickly pull you in to its tale of music, courage, and hope.


The Witch Hunter’s Tale: Author interview with Sam Thomas

Today, I’m pleased to welcome author Sam Thomas to talk about his latest “Midwife Mystery,” The Witch Hunter’s Tale, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January, 2015. This third installment in Sam’s series about a mystery-solving midwife in seventeenth century York, England, follows The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale but can also be read on its own.

In this thrilling novel, Sam takes us deep into the dark streets of the ancient city, unfolding a tale of the terrible witch hunts that flared into fanaticism during an unstable era in history. By centering on a midwife as his main character, Sam also illuminates the frequently overlooked stories of the brave and compassionate women who struggled to bring healing into the lives of others during this turbulent time, as well as those who would use their position in a more unscrupulous way. With its combination of deep human interest and dynamic real-life events, The Witch Hunter’s Tale is a great read for lovers of historical mysteries, and especially for those who, like me, have a special interest in the history and literary associations of Yorkshire.

Sam Thomas is a former professor of history at the University of Alabama and currently teaches secondary school students at the University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy, and has
published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to
colonial Africa. Sam kindly answered some of my questions about the history behind the mysteries, and I hope you’ll find his perspective as fascinating as I do.

You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction? What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your books?

The jump into fiction came at the same time I quite college teaching to move to an independent high school. (Long story there!) The problem was that as a historian I’d become fascinated by the history of midwives and could not bear the thought of abandoning them entirely. I knew that no high school would give me a year off to write a history of midwifery, so I thought a novel might take its place. And it seems to have!

My goal when I write fiction is more or less unchanged from my non-fiction days. I want to write about the past in a way that is true and engages the reader’s heart and mind. The past is full of amazing stories, so there is no reason at all for it to be dry.

What do you find most intriguing about your the era and place of your series — northern England in the time of the battles between Royalists and Puritans?

I was originally drawn to this period because of its religious diversity. (My own family is a mix of Quaker, Jewish, and Catholic. Paging Dr. Freud.) You had the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers, all running about at the same time. I wanted to know how these groups related to each other: when did they fight, when did they get along, and why?

Then you throw in the Civil War, the trial and execution of the King on charges of treason…really, what more could you want?

Your central mystery-solving midwife character is based on a real person, Bridget Hodgson. You go into her fascinating historical record in detail on your website, but can you briefly describe who she was and how you found her?

The ‘historical’ Bridget Hodgson was a midwife in York during and after the English Civil War. I stumbled across her will entirely by accident, and immediately fell in love. I had this image of midwives as elderly crones of dubious reputation with their neighbors, but there she was, wealthy, well-born, and proud of her work as a midwife, and the more I learned, the more I loved.

She was from a gentry family, the Baskervilles (she had a coat of arms and perhaps a hound), married the son of the Lord Mayor of York, and – this is the great part – named all her god-daughters after herself.

It is one thing to give your own daughter your name (she did this too), but to name other people’s daughters after you? That takes some confidence.

Why did you choose to make a midwife the focus of a series of mystery novels?

It actually was the other way around. I knew I wanted to write about midwives, and mysteries seemed the way to go.

First, it made it easier to find a plot. You start with one dead body, and you end with another one. Easy as pie!

Second, it made sense. Midwives were a part of the criminal justice system at the time, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide and rape to witchcraft. And if a female prisoner were sentenced to death and claimed to be pregnant, the midwife was the one who checked out her story.

Literally, midwives decided who lived and died!

It seems that there is a fair amount of mystery about midwives themselves — historians don’t really know much about their lives and work in the pre-modern era. What are some of the questions that are being researched?

Man, great question. I think the one key question focuses on the relationship between midwives and mothers. So little is known about this, but it obviously was key to many women’s lives. How did mothers pick midwives and what criteria did they use? What made a midwife good at her job?

The other – even bigger – question was how men took over childbirth. The curious thing about this is that it is unlikely that the male midwives were forced on unwilling mothers. Rather, mothers sought out male practitioners. The question we can’t answer is why? What happened in English society that made this change possible?

In this particular book, the terrible phenomenon of witch hunting, which was at its height at the time, is central to the plot. What do think fueled this hysteria? How do you hope your fictional treatment can help us understand it?

Between 1400 and 1800, approximately five hundred English women were executed as witches. Of these, nearly three hundred were killed in a single decade, the 1640s. So there is no question that the witch panics were a product of a very specific time and place.

The best book on this is Malcom Gaskill’s Witchfinders. I can’t do his thesis justice here, but in short he argues that the chaos of the civil war drove people to violence. Misfortune was a sign of God’s anger, and hunting witches was a way to please Him.

Add to this the collapse of government authority, which ordinarily kept accusations from getting out of hand, and the conditions were just right for this sort of thing.

I think the key idea is that witch hunters thought they were doing God’s work, and often were terrified of the women they put on trial. Obviously I’m not defending them, but it is important to understand the past.

If a reader is so lucky as to have a chance to visit the city of York, what sites do you recommend for getting a sense of the past?

The great thing about York is that it’s small and compact. See the cathedral, and pay for the extras. (You have to pay to get into the Chapter House, walk on the roof, and go down into the crypt, but do it!)

Walk the city wall – it’s amazing – and then get lost. There are old churches everywhere, and each one is a marvel.

And, do you have recommendations for further reading about your novel’s time, place, and subjects, either fiction or nonfiction (not too technical for us non-historians)?

Witchfinders is good, I think, and available in paperback. For fiction, I’d recommend Susanna Calkins’s Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the first in her series. She’s also a historian, we have the same publisher, and we each have two sons of the same age. Had we not met, I’d think we might be the same person. Except I’m taller.

If you want to go a bit earlier, there’s C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake. One of these (Sovereign?) takes place in York, at least in part. They are quite good!

Thank you, Sam! Your decision to write a “midwife mystery” now makes perfect sense, and I for one am very glad you did. I look forward to reading more about Bridget and her adventures.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Witch Hunter’s Tale. Please visit the tour page for more stops with reviews, interviews, and other great content.

New Release Review: How To Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis, How To Be a Heroine (2015)

I remember well the day a friend casually said, upon seeing some book lying around at my place (I think it was The Hobbit), “I don’t read fiction.” Now, I understood of course that there were different tastes in the fictional realm, and that Tolkien was not everyone’s cup of tea. But to not read fiction at all? Just to write it off as boring and a waste of time? I knew there must be people like that out there, but they were usually more distant from me, belonging to foreign tribes of the soul, not friends that I would invite into my inner sanctum. I realized with dismay that I would have to cross a great divide to really understand such a person.

What a relief, then to open the pages of How To Be a Heroine and meet someone who decidedly belongs to my tribe. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, reflects on her own life in terms of the books that defined and shaped her as she grew up, and particularly in terms of the heroines who showed her different ways to be a girl and then a woman. At a point in midlife when she is questioning where she is, how she got there and where she is going, rereading her favorites turns out to be more than just an exercise in nostalgia. We learn that fictional worlds don’t remain static, but can transform and show us new sides of ourselves as we gain experience and knowledge. Sometimes the results are disappointing, sometimes illuminating, but always fascinating in their revelation of the eternal enchantment of fiction.

As the child of Iraqi Jewish refugee parents, raised within an insular ethnic community, one could question what Ellis would find to relate to in the heroines of classic English literature: Elizabeth Bennett, Lucy Honeychurch, Anne of Green Gables. Happily, she shows us that in such much-loved and long-lasting works of fiction are to be found universal human concerns, which shine beneath the trappings of time and culture. To take but one example, the “marriage plot” is no less powerful in her own family, which expects her to marry a nice Iraqi Jew and keeps a tier of her Bat Mitzvah cake in the freezer for that day, than in Jane Austen’s society.

No literary snob, Ellis shows that there’s also wisdom to be gleaned from less elevated fare, such as The Valley of the Dolls, Lace, and the novels of Jilly Cooper. How has the very idea of what it means to be a woman changed over the last two hundred years? What can we learn from the trials and struggles of these characters, and of their writers? How have they fought to be recognized as human beings, as creators, as people with rights and feelings of their own? Written with passion and verve, How To Be a Heroine is a marvelous personal exploration of these questions, articulate, lucid, and never pretentious.

If I were to meet Samantha Ellis in person, we wouldn’t agree about everything. I would question her selection of the homicidal maniac Heathcliff as a romantic ideal, and she would wonder how I could find Beth March in Little Women anything other than disgustingly insipid. But we would definitely agree about one thing: reading fiction is one way, perhaps the most important way, that we have learned to create the story of our own lives. If you, too, look to books as touchstones of your life, and particularly to those inhabited by feisty, creative, and courageous heroines, then you will surely want to have the joy of revisiting them through this excellent consideration of all they have to offer.


New Release Review: An Appetite for Violets

Martine Bailey, An Appetite for Violets (2015)

Start with an intriguing opening: a mouldering, uneaten feast, seen through the eyes of a hapless young man in search of his runaway sister. Add some piquant ingredients: the voices of servants, with their own lives and thoughts under the genteel surface imposed by their aristocratic employers. Take both servants and masters on a journey from northern England to Tuscany, mixing well along the way. Result: a thoroughly entertaining historical mystery, with a culinary slant.

In this tale inspired by and incorporating a collection of antique recipes, it’s natural enough that the main narrative belongs to an energetic young cook, Biddy Leigh. Biddy’s distinctive first-person voice provides much of the charm of the novel, and her enthusiasm for gastronomic adventure is contagious. When torn from her familiar surroundings by the seeming whim of her mistress, taken on an increasingly puzzling journey through France and over the Alps to Italy, she loses no opportunity to learn and benefit from her expanded horizons, and sharing her experiences is a treat for us as well. But when the game becomes deadly serious, can she cook her way out of this turn of events?

Although the components of this novel were splendid, the last stages of their assembly left something to be desired. Biddy’s mistress asks her to take part in a deception that requires her to act and talk in a way that is not truly believable for her character, and that also caused her to lose much of her distinctive “flavor.” An overly hasty love story and an unnecessarily melodramatic twist also marred the final chapters. Like cooks, novelists must beware of too many ingredients, too eagerly flung together. However, An Appetite for Violets is in the main a delicious concoction, full of historical details that don’t bog down the story but provide many delightful moments to savor.

Linked in Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads


New Release Review: The Just City

Jo Walton, The Just City (Tor, 2015)

fantasy Jo Walton Plato

Nobody can take an idea and run with it like Jo Walton. This is the writer who gave us a Trollopean social satire populated by dragons (Tooth and Claw), a country house murder mystery that turns into a chilling alternate history of a Fascist England (Farthing), and a coming-of-age story built around lots of science fiction book recommendations. With fairies. And Wales (Among Others).

Now, in The Just City, we have what sounds like the winner of a “wackiest premise for a novel” contest: a group of time-traveling philosophers from throughout history, led by a couple of Olympian gods, set out to turn Plato’s Republic from theory into fact. Because this is Jo Walton, she has us hooked from the first chapter. This nonchalantly introduces us to Apollo, fresh from a disastrous encounter with the nymph Daphne. He goes for advice to his wise sister Athene, who keeps getting prayed to by people from all kinds of times and places to please help them create the Republic on earth, and needs to find something to do with them. It just gets better — and stranger — from there.

Apollo is one of the narrators of the story, in alternating chapters with Maia, one of the Masters whose prayers to Athene have entitled her to build and organize the city, and Simmea, one of the “children” who are rescued from lives of slavery to grow up under the Platonic system and aim at the philosopher’s ultimate goal of pursuing excellence. (In an effort to learn some important things that he can’t understand as a powerful god, Apollo has elected to be born as a mortal and grow up as one of the children as well.) So from three different levels of consciousness we see how the experiment is working out, and where some of the difficulties lie, especially after Sokrates himself comes to the city with his troubling questions.

The details of making the Republic a reality are largely the fun of the book. Thriving on a regime of exercise, art, and study, Simmea grows to love the city and embrace its ideals, while in a society based on equality of the sexes Maia finds a welcome release from the limitations of her previous Victorian existence. Appearances by real historical personalities are entertaining, as is the idea of rescuing some of the greatest lost literature and art — Botticelli’s Winter, anyone? But some of the more bizarre notions on which the city is founded cause it to start to crumble as the years go by, and serious questions about the nature of the soul, individuality, and self-determination arise.

The fact that the Just City has problems is not a reflection on the achievement of Plato in The Republic; the masters themselves acknowledge that the dialogue was meant as a thought experiment and not as a practical blueprint. Taking the experiment a step further through fiction, though, causes the thoughts to be reactivated and reassembled in a new form, and that’s not a bad thing. It definitely made me want to read Plato for the first time since I was forced to do so in school. I was less interested in the debate about artificial intelligence that comes to dominate the latter part of the book. I am willing to suspend disbelief for a lot of things, but the idea that robots can become sentient just from being around a critical mass of philosophers is not one of them.

This and a few other aspects caused me not to love this book as much as I could have (including several disturbing rape scenes). Still, I found The Just City to be a diverting, thought-provoking, mind-bending ride of a novel, philosophy degree not required. Thanks once again to Jo Walton for writing a book like nothing anybody else would ever dream of, and making it seem the most natural thing in the world. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, which is fortunately coming out in only a few months.