Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Philosopher Kings - Jo Walton

In January Tor released The Just City by Jo Walton. It is one of the most difficult books to categorize I've ever come across. Who would think to combine time travel and robots with Plato's philosophy and Greek mythology and hope to end up with a decent story? Walton pulled it off though. The Just City is one of the most interesting books I've read this year. It is also the first in a trilogy. The Philosopher Kings is the second. It appeared in June, less than half a year after the first volume. The third book, Necessity, is scheduled for June 2016. I will be keeping an eye out for that one. The Philosopher Kings is just as strong as the first volume and takes the story in interesting new directions.

Twenty years have passed since the Last Debate and Athene's abandonment of the Just City. The population has split up in five factions, founding four new cities, each with their own views on Plato's utopia. One group even decides to leave the island completely. The five city-states have various disagreements, most notably about the distribution of art taken from various times and places in history. Most of it remains in the original city but other cities constantly raid them to get their hands on some of it. In one of these raids Simmea, one of the main characters of The Just City, is killed. She leaves behind a grieving lover, a daughter and several sons, all struggling in their own way with their grief and the impossible position the city finds itself in.

Of all the characters in the first book, Simmea probably gets closest to Plato's ideal of the Philosopher King. Her life is dedicated to striving for excellence and even in death she has things to teach her loved ones. Her lover Phyteas is Apollo reincarnated in a mortal body. By killing himself he could have regained his powers, after which healing her would have been easy. She stops him from doing so however, leaving him behind to deal with grief and the inevitability of losing loved ones. It replaces his quest to understand consent in the first novel if you will. Simmea's death is a very powerful scene even if Walton writes it in a very understated way. It's an event that echoes through the entire book, relentlessly driving the characters to correct the issue that caused her death in the first place.

Like the previous volume, Walton offers us three points of view. Apollo and Maia, both of whom we met in the first novel, and Arete, daughter of Apollo and Simmea, who takes over from her mother. Through their eyes we see how the cities risk  sliding further and further away from Plato's ideal. It takes a trip off the island to see where it could lead though. On the various islands in the Aegean, the main characters get to see how easy it is to slide down the ladder of Plato's five regimes and what the consequences would be. Arete's point of view is especially clear on this. Used as she is to a city where striving for excellence drives everyday life, she is very sensitive to matters that will lead away from this ideal.

Walton uses the trip around the Aegean to add some more history to the novel as well. We know that the Just City was founded some time before the Thera volcanic eruption, at the tail end of the Minoan era in Greek history. What Walton doesn't tell us is when exactly this is. Possibly because the actual date of the Thera eruption is still uncertain. The characters speculate they were taken to a time shortly before the Trojan War. The novel mentions Laomedon as king of Troy. In Greek mythology he was the father of Priam who would be king during the war. The timeline strikes me as a bit strange. The most widely accepted dates for the historical events that may be the inspiration for Homer's Iliad are several centuries after the Thera eruption. It makes for a good story though. The characters are constantly wondering if some mythological figure might not be alive and walking one of the islands they are about to visit.

The trip, starting with the question of whether or not to make it in the first place, is subject to much debate. Without the guidance of Athene, who has not been seen in the city since the Last Debate, it is unclear if and how their trip will affect history. Athene's reason for placing the city on Thera is that the evidence would at some point be wiped out by the volcano. Why would the philosophers accept that they or their children will fall victim to this disaster in the name of an experiment of the gods? One Athene childishly abandoned after losing a debate, leaving her guinea pigs to their fate. The answer to that question is the climax of the novel and, I suppose, the foundation for the next one.

Both on their trip and at home the characters are confronted by the influence of Christianity. In the previous novel it was kept out as much as possible but both on their trip to other islands and at home, this religion is making inroads. It's a strange experience to see Christian theology show up more than a millennium before the birth of Jesus. On Thera, the work of Thomas Aquinas drives this development. I have the feeling that quite a bit of what Walton wanted to say with this part of the story went right over my head. This is probably a result of my minimal religious education and lack of interest in such matters. Other readers may do better with this part of the story.

Compared to the first novel  I guess The Philosopher Kings has a bit more plot and a bit less debate. That doesn't make it any less enjoyable though. The mixture of time travel and Greek mythology again works very well. Despite taking on some very difficult ideas the book is not a hard read. Its greatest strength is probably that Walton manages to make philosophy very accessible in this book. It doesn't end on such a dramatic cliffhanger as the previous novel but it is quite clear that the story is not quite finished. It will be very interesting to see what our Philosopher Kings can achieve in the final instalment.

Book Details
Title: The Philosopher Kings
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 348
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3267-7
First published: 2015


  1. With your review of this second volume of Walton's trilogy I am encouraged to begin reading the first volume. I've got a strong interest in classical Greek mythology and SF, so this should be a good fit. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Definitely one of the most interesting releases of this year. I don't think anybody has tackled greek mythology quite this way before.