Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: The Just City and The Philosopher Kings

The Just City
by Jo Walton

Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Publisher: Tor
Cover Art: The School of Athens (detail) by Raphael
Release Date: January 13, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0765332660

"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.

There are three points of view in the novel.  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.  And finally, the god Apollo comes to the city as one of the children in order to live a full mortal life and learn more about what it means to be human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect."


Like Plato's original work, this novel is a bit of a thought experiment.  It attempts to see just how the Just City might actually work.  It succeeds and fails in many different ways, which is to be expected whenever ideals mix with human nature.  Some adjustments have to be made even to get it to work in the first place.  This book is chock-full of philosophy as the characters have tons of debates and moral arguments, and it was fascinating reading it.  I really liked all the ideas and was never bored with it all.

Because of the novel's content, there is understandably little in the way of plot making this a character-based story with the City itself practically a character as well.  There is a "climax", which is, quite appropriately, a debate: one between Athena and Socrates.

Rating: 8/10.

The Philosopher Kings
by Jo Walton

Format: Hardcover, 348 pages
Publisher: Tor
Cover Art: The School of Athens (detail) by Raphael
Release Date: June 30, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0765332677

The sequel to The Just City picks up almost twenty years after The Just City, where the City has split into five and conflict is not unheard of.  After a tragic loss, Apollo in his mortal form, swears revenge and sets out with several of his children to seek justice. 

The sequel to The Just City does not have many of the debates and moral arguments of the first book.  Rather it is a more straightforward exploration and revenge plot about how Apollo deals with his grief and his children learn about their godly heritage.  There is still some philosophy, mainly as the crew from the City explore and encounter the other cities.  Each of the other cities have different setups so we see how some of the different philosophies are working on a larger scale.  But that also means I didn't enjoy this book quite as much.  The climax of this one is a little out of left field and ties things off too neatly, but ultimately it's satisfactorily. 

For anyone who is even remotely interested in the philosophical and ethical ideas present I would heartily recommend these two books.

Rating: 7.5/10.

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