My jaw remained open whilst I read the last pages of Jo Walton’s The Just City, and for a little while afterwards. Released earlier this year, Walton’s first novel in a new trilogy saw the start of a story whose foundational ideas are so wild, so daring, that only an author with the fullest grasp of her talent could even think of trying to wrestle with them, let alone to actually subdue and then use them to write an engaging story.
In that novel, scholars and philosophers from different times and places are selected by the goddess Athene to build the ideal society depicted in Plato’s famous dialogue, The Republic. To accomplish that, she gifts them multiple robots from the future whom we later learn are able to develop self-awareness. Those same scholars and philosophers then buy thousands of ten-year-old slaves to educate them and bring them up on the instructions set by Plato himself. One of those young slaves is Apollo, who sees his incarnation as the only way possible to understand what it truly means to be human. It’s a crazy idea, yet Walton makes it work in a story that thoughtfully explores the themes of self-concept and the atrocity of it being denied by others.
At the end of The Just City we were left with a huge cliff-hanger, and to view it, begin highlighting here: Sokrates’ insistent questioning has brought up to the surface elements that the inhabitants of the Just City had failed to think through, which leads to an enormous debate that ends with the city being fractured amongst groups of differing views, and with Sokrates having been turned into a fly by Athene herself. [end spoiler] One would think The Philosopher Kings, the second novel in the THESSALY trilogy, would follow from there, but instead, much to my surprise, it starts thirty years after those explosive events. (I just described a philosophical debate as being explosive, and it fits.)
As The Philosopher Kings opens we learn of an art raid happening at the Just City. Apparently in the last three decades other cities have been founded by the dissenting groups, and they think it is their right to own some of the art that had been rescued during the original tenure of the Just City, even if that means they have to fight for it. Suffice it to say that if you thought the three decade jump forward was surprising, what happens in those first pages will make you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about what Walton was doing with this story.
And I am actually glad Jo Walton wasn’t afraid of straying away from the easy route because the route that she did choose to tread allows her to explore new perspectives in a book that while taking place in the same universe, and that roughly follows the same characters, ends up dealing with vastly different themes which wouldn’t be as easy to deal with were the story to follow exactly where the previous one ended.
A new viewpoint is introduced in the character of Arete, the youngest daughter of Simmea and Phyteas. As her brothers are wont to point out, Arete means “excellence” in Latin and her brothers and friends make endless puns on her name such as chasing her through the streets of the Just City because they are “pursuing excellence”. When I talked about new perspectives earlier, it’s Arete that I am mostly thinking about. While not the first teenage viewpoint in the series, she is the first in that when she was born the Just City was already going at full speed, and being a demigod herself, the question of what it means to lead a good life, which is the tantamount question in every inhabitant in the Just City and its outer cities, acquires a bit more pertinence since she not only has the potential to live forever, but can also become a hero like those of the epics, if she so chooses. I also very much enjoyed Maia’s evolving relationship with Ikaros which ends in a very uplifting note.
One issue which was hard to overlook was that Arete’s brothers, who are also demigods of course, are never given enough time to differentiate between one another, and given their number, it became troublesome telling them apart in my head, which resulted in an all-encompassing “Arete-brother” in my head that took the place of every one of her brothers in the scene. I also have some doubts about the way the characters are all so keen to accept Pytheas’ suggestion, which is the main mover of the plot in the beginning, without thinking things fully through — which seems unbecoming of them.
One can almost see the THESSALY trilogy as a scathing critique of top-down planning of cities and the overbearing control of people’s lives by a centralized ruling body through an ossified rulebook and a with a scandalous disregard of people’s wants. Almost. Having read Walton’s other works, notably My Real Children, her more politically transparent novel, it seems that critique, if it can be said to exist, isn’t conscious on her part. What is indeed her intent, though, her story, her characters and what they learn, can be said to almost catch arete itself. As with the ending of The Just City, my eyes were glued to the page, my brain was racing with the possibilities, and I stood there in the delight of seeing an author manage to bring all those threads together in the most satisfactory way possible. I am very much looking forward what Jo Walton will bring to us next, and I very much encourage everyone to give The Just City and The Philosopher Kings a chance.
Thessaly — (2015-2016) “Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.” Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past. The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her. Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human. Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.