Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Just City Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Literary Science Fiction
Series: Thessaly Book One
Pages: 368

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(An advanced copy was provided by the publisher).

The Just City is the first book in a new philosophical fantasy trilogy by Jo Walton.  I had never read anything by Jo Walton when I received my advance copy of this book, but I had heard a lot of glowing praise.  So I’m about to jump on that bandwagon, because this book is one of the best new books I’ve read in awhile.  With a great concept, entertaining multidimensional characters, and a nod to one of philosophy’s most important works, Walton tells an utterly compelling and thought provoking story.

The Greek Goddess Athene decides to create the Just City, a real life city that adheres to all of the ideals mentioned in Plato’s Republic.  She gathers children from the age of ten who were sold into slavery and devout readers of Plato to teach them throughout all eras of time and brings them to a secluded island in the past to carry out this experiment.  Will Athene be able to create a truly just or balanced city where everyone strives to be their best selves?

The Just City has three narrators that examine the various roles mortals and immortals play in Walton’s social experiment.  There is ten year old Simmea who is growing up in Ancient Egypt.  She is enslaved after her entire family is murdered, and is brought to the Just City as part of the first generation of students that are there to learn how to be their best selves.  Maia is an English woman from the Victorian era.  She is brought to the Just City to become a Master, where she helps design the Just City to make sure it adheres to Plato’s ideals and to teach the children art.  The final narrator is the God Apollo. Realizing that there are things that mortals understand that he doesn’t, Apollo agrees to sacrifice his God powers for a mortal body and a place in Athene’s experiment.

There is very little action, but when there is it’s jarring as Walton springs violence and rape on readers very abruptly and very graphically. These scenes support a larger idea that’s explored throughout the novel: woman’s unequal treatment throughout history.  Yes even a city that tries to achieve equality still features a number of sexist males.  Intrigue is what largely carries this story along with a myriad of “what happens when” and “what is” types of questions:

What happens when you bring people from all throughout history to live together in one city?
What happens when you recreate Plato’s Republic?

What happens when Gods live amongst mortals?

What is freedom?

What is equality?

What is the soul?

On and on it goes, after all this is predominantly a philosophical novel, but that just starts to scratch the surface. The questioning intensifies once Sokrates is brought to the Just City to teach rhetoric.  Being every bit the rambunctious intellectual you’d expect him to be, he begins to question everything about how the Just City is run.  This gets really interesting once Sokrates starts to question the robot workers that were brought to the city from the future and are essential to keeping everything running.

Needless to say it’s very difficult to keep someone reading when there is very little action, yet Jo Walton not only manages to do this but she’s created a page turner that never compromises the integrity of its ideas or the prose used to tell it.  If you’re someone who enjoys philosophy, Greek mythology, or have read The Republic then you should definitely consider picking up this book.

Score: 9.7

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