Book Review: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

I’m not sure that most people would agree with me that The Philosopher Kings is a fun read, but I enjoyed it at least as well as I did its predecessor, The Just City.  After the rather abrupt and somewhat shocking ending of the previous book, I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

This book returns to the Just City, but after a gap of about twenty years. Since the Last Debate (between Socrates and Athena) things have changed considerably. After transforming Socrates into a gadfly, Athena departed in a huff, taking all but two of the robot Workers with her. Kebes and about a hundred and fifty other people (including several Masters) disappeared with one of the settlement’s two ships. After all this, the remaining people in the city split into more cities, each dedicated to realizing Plato’s Republic in slightly different ways. This went well enough at first, but in later years the cities have begun to fight over the art that was originally brought to the Just City, and there are now frequent battles between cities and works of art are stolen back and forth between them.

The Philosopher Kings begins with one of these art raids in progress, and Simmea (one of the points of view in The Just City) is killed in the fighting. Pytheas could have killed his human body, regained his powers as Apollo, and healed Simmea before she died, but she stopped him. The rest of the book is, ostensibly, about Pytheas’s quest to figure out why Simmea did this. Really, though, The Philosopher Kings picks up where The Just City left off with exploring the answers to the question: What would happen if people actually tried to put Plato’s ideas into practice?

It turns out that all sorts of things could happen, and we get to see several of them in this book. It’s fascinating to see how the different cities that split off from the original one have turned out, and it’s interesting to see what Kebes and his people have done after leaving the island. I like that even though the original city has fractured into smaller groups, even those smaller groups aren’t entirely like-minded.

The new narrator for this book is Simmea’s daughter with Pytheas, Arete (“excellence”), who is fifteen. She’s smart and kind and likable, but she still manages to seem like a fifteen-year-old. It’s nice to read a teen protagonist who isn’t overly precocious and who doesn’t have everything all figured out. Besides Arete, Pytheas returns as an occasional narrator, and it’s clear how much he’s grown up in twenty years. However, Simmea’s death affects him deeply and forces him to go through yet another sort of coming of age in this book. We really get to see how much he depended upon Simmea and how pretty much his entire life was his relationship with her, especially as the children they’ve raised are all adults now except for Arete. For Pytheas, this book is about finding his place in the community outside his own family. Also returning with point of view chapters in The Philosopher Kings is Maia, who is now in her fifties. While few in number, her chapters are by far my favorite parts of the novel.

The only problem that I had with The Philosopher Kings is the way it dealt with rape. While I appreciate that this book didn’t forget Maia’s or Simmea’s rapes in The Just City, Simmea’s rape is used too much as a motivating force for Pytheas and Maia’s rapist, Ikaros, is largely redeemed by the end of the book, in the narrative if not in the eyes of the reader. While I think the intent is not to treat rape lightly–rather, the impression I got was that it’s just one more messy aspect of human interactions that would be better in a more just society–I also think it kind of does treat rape lightly. Ikaros, in particular, is given too much credit, in my opinion, for being a fundamentally decent person, and there are some things he says to Maia in this book that had me absolutely seeing red on her behalf.

Some readers have complained that the book is overly philosophical with too much debating going on, but I, personally, adore the debates between characters. This was a common complaint about The Just City as well, so if you didn’t like that book you probably won’t enjoy this one any more. Another complaint that I’ve seen about this book in particular is that it abruptly and unexpectedly turned into science fiction at the end, but this is also something that appealed to me. Of course, that’s partly because, to my mind, this series has always been science fiction (I mean, robots.), but it’s also because I enjoy heavy handed genre bending of this kind.

With that in mind, I was super thrilled to learn that this isn’t a duology as I originally thought, but a trilogy. The bad news, of course, is that it’s not a six month wait like between the first two books. Per Jo Walton herself, it looks like we can’t expect to see Necessity before mid 2016.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton”

    1. It’s very tricky in this one. Because it’s not a redemption exactly, but it definitely does make the character a lot more sympathetic in the end than I would generally like. It’s just really weird, in a way, because the woman who he raped never likes him or trusts him, but by the end she is able to care about him and feel charitable towards him. I suppose this really says more about her kindness than anything else, but still.

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