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Apr / May 2016
The Just City / The Philosopher Kings – Jo Walton – Corsair, 2015
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So this is something a bit unusual. It is a historical fantasy that eschews most of the motors of that genre such as dramatic violence and heavy use of magic. Instead, its largely female cast tries to engage the reader with philosophical discussion about freedom and justice. If this sounds awful, you will probably not enjoy it. Personally I thought it was an interesting and worthwhile experiment, even though it is based on the ideas of one of my least favourite writers.

It starts with a tree. The tree that Daphne turns into, to be precise, to get away from Apollo, who can't understand why she did it. He talks to Athene, who tells him about an experiment she is engaged in to construct the City described in Plato's Republic using a cross-section of people snatched up from around the world and down the centuries. Apollo decides to put aside his godly powers and spend time as a mortal in the hope of understanding them better.

He, however, is not one of the main characters, at least in the first book. They are Simmea, a child rescued from slavery by the founders of the city, and Maia, a daughter of a Victorian rector who reads The Republic, realises that it is the only society she has ever come across where her gender will not hold her back, and prays to Athene to take her there. Which she does. Maia becomes a Master with Simmea as one of her charges. Together they try to make the society described by Plato work. But do they succeed?

My major problem with this book was that, as I have said before, I thoroughly loathe Plato and all his works, so I spent most of it hoping that it would all end in tears. Far from being a blueprint for a just society, The Republic, for me, describes a nightmare authoritarian dystopia, and I was bothered by the fact that Walton doesn't seem to agree. To be fair, she does a good job of sidestepping some of the more morally reprehensible elements and at least querying others. Of course the Republic needed slaves to function, so Athene finds some robots from a future earth to do the heavy lifting (I should hasten to add that this is not the cop-out that it appears; they become a major element in the second half of the book). Then there is the sorting of the children into "metals", which is depicted as a sort of eleven-plus on steroids and just as susceptible to subjectivity and manipulation. But not even Walton can get round the lack of consent in sexual matters which undermines the female egalitarianism. There is a rape that is implausibly brushed under the carpet by the victim, and the casual acceptance of the "festivals of Hera", where sexual partners are drawn by lot and women are expected to become pregnant, felt very wrong.

Fortunately, Sokrates (Walton's spelling) is introduced as a significant character about half way through the book and raises the sorts of questions that I wanted answered. I won't say that I found the book's ending entirely satisfactory, but it is definitely the right one given the setup.

In The Philosopher Kings, Apollo becomes more of a main character which is somewhat to the book's detriment. It is essentially a revenge tale as he goes on a sea voyage to find the person that he thinks was responsible for a tragedy in his (human) family, accompanied by his daughter Arete and sundry other characters from book one. The world is broadened, but the themes are less apparent and the story less memorable - the main thing I can remember is a gruesome death. I wasn't keen on the deus ex machina ending, either.

Still, as an attempt to write a different sort of fantasy, the first book in particular works. It may not be for everyone, but I liked its originality.


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