The Philosopher Kings: Surprises and philosophy, with a touch of Greek mythology

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton fantasy book reviewsThe Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

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.

Published June 30, 2015. From acclaimed, award-winning author Jo Walton: Philosopher Kings, a tale of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another. Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of. The god Apollo, living (by his own choice) a human life as “Pythias” in the City, his true identity known only to a few, is now married and the father of several children. But a tragic loss causes him to become consumed with the desire for revenge. Being Apollo, he goes handling it in a seemingly rational and systematic way, but it’s evident, particularly to his precocious daughter Arete, that he is unhinged with grief. Along with Arete and several of his sons, plus a boatload of other volunteers–including the now fantastically aged Marsilio Ficino, the great humanist of Renaissance Florence–Pythias/Apollo goes sailing into the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean of pre-antiquity to see what they can find―possibly the man who may have caused his great grief, possibly communities of the earliest people to call themselves “Greek.” What Apollo, his daughter, and the rest of the expedition will discover…will change everything.

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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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One comment

  1. “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 laughed out loud when I reached this sentence.

    I’ve only read her previous trilogy about a fascist Britain, and I’m browsing WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT now, but these two are definitely on my list.

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