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.


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.