The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

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Publication date – June 30, 2015

Summary: 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.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Just City, a book which blew me away when I first read it, The Philosopher Kings does exactly the same thing, and just as cheerfully. The first book of the series could stand on its own, and very steadily, without the need for a sequel. The story was complete, or at least complete enough that it didn’t feel unfinished in the slightest. However, it seems there was more of the story to be told after all, and The Philosopher Kings picks up some years after the end of the first book. The debate between Sokrates and Athene has become known as the Last Debate. The city has split, and 4 other cities have been formed, each attempting to build their ideal home according to Plato’s laws but with their own interpretation. Raids for art have become common, each city wanting their share of the time-rescued art and no other city prepared to give up what they have.

Thanks to the art raids, Simmea, one of the characters we see grow up in the Just City in the first book, someone who devoted her life to excellence as best she knew it, has been killed. Apollo, in his mortal guise as Pythias, vows revenge against the person he thinks orchestrated the attack: Kebes, a malcontent who left the Just City some years back, and who has long expressed his hate for the City and what it stands for. Together with his children, he sets out on a journey to get his revenge, and along the way discovers that the Republic experiment has reached further than anyone intended.

All of the things I loved about the first book make a return here. The thought-provoking debates, the unique and interesting characters, the expression of diversity amongst people who are still united for a common goal. Walton juggles many balls here, and does it all so well. The story of Pythias and his children seeking revenge on Kebes and finding other settlements that have been influenced by Athene’s plans would make an interesting enough story all on its own. Then you throw in the coming-of-age subplot with Arete, not only as she goes from child to ephebe, but also as she and her brothers discover that they have heroic souls, complete with a variety of divine powers, and they must decide whether to develop those powers and embrace that aspect of their heritage or to keep it hidden. Roll that all up into a ball with fantastic philosophical debates, and you get something that’s highly intelligent and will appeal to those with a keen mind.

I suppose this book falls under the category of “literary SFF,” as does The Just City. There are definitely some fantastical elements to it all. Deities bringing together people from multiple different times and places. Sentience and art arising in robotic workers. Everything that was already established beforehand stays true here. The only new element, really, is Pythias’s children and the nature of their souls, but even that is mostly a frame upon which to drape philosophy and questions. It does serve to advance the story, though in small ways rather than huge ones. Arete can detect when someone is lying, which comes in handy during important debates, for instance.

Walton works wonders with providing so much commentary on big issues here, issues that I can’t say I often think about but that are interesting to ponder once brought up. If you take a bunch of Christians and transport them back before the time of Jesus, does what Jesus did for humanity still apply? Is it better to have a high social standing and not follow your passion than to have a low social standing but be fulfilled by what you do there? What is true justice?

Actually, I spent a few hours contemplating that one, and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Best I can figure out, true justice is where the punishment inflicts proportional damage upon the perpetrator that they inflicted upon the victim. It’s not enough to follow “an eye for an eye” if the perpetrator is ambivalent about losing an eye and their victim valued their sight immensely, because things aren’t proportional. But that means that sometimes justice must be downright cruel, and sometimes it can never be served completely… See, this is the kind of stuff that reading this book makes you think about, which is why I love it! Rarely do I encounter books that put me in that exact frame of mind to ponder big questions in such an analytical way. It makes me want to search for answers. Not necessarily find them, but at least search for them, and in so doing improve my understanding of them.

In short, it makes me want to better myself, to bring myself that much closer to excellence. Which is the whole purpose behind Athene’s experiment with Plato’s Republic.

I’d say this book’s only real shortcoming is the ending. Zeus comes down in all his glory and swoops select people (and deities) away to have a chat about what’s going to happen to all the cities spawned from this experiment. They’re having a larger effect on the world than intended, and it can’t go on that way. Which makes sense. Even the proposed solution makes sense, even though it brings in some odd science-fictional elements that do fit, given the time-traveling powers of gods, but it seemed a little bit too neat of an ending for my taste.

But that still fit more than a single exchange between Apollo and Zeus. Apollo comments that through his time as a mortal, he learned about equal significance and how people have their own needs and wants that are just as valid as his own, even when those desires are in opposition. And Zeus replies by saying that he wondered how long it would take Apollo to figure that out.

And I just wondered if Zeus had been replaced by some other god. Some random deity in a Zeus-suit. Because when last I checked, Zeus is pretty well known for doing whatever he wants, to whomever he wants. So that came across as one epic, “Do as I say, not as I do,” moment.

Either that, or it was one wonderfully subtle reference to the changes in the Christian god’s personality once Jesus came into place. And especially given the frequent comments about how Apollo’s time as a mortal is extremely similar to the stories of Jesus being God in mortal form… I’m inclined to believe the latter, honestly, because Walton can do some amazingly subtle and impacting things with her writing, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that this was her intention. But without reading between a lot of lines, that dialogue seems to be a giant bit of mythological hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy or not, The Philosopher Kings was a brilliant book, and I adored it, as I expected to. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll feel the same way about this one. And if you’re looking for a fascinating take on philosophy, history, and religion, then look no further than this duology. it’s worth every second you spend reading it, and every second you spend thinking about it afterward. In a word, phenomenal!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

5 comments on “The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

  1. I keep reading glowing reviews of this series, but I’m still not sure it’s for me. But I’m loving the 5 star review! I’ll have to keep it in mind if my reading pile ever gets too low (yeah right!)

  2. Both of these books are so good. I prefer the first on balance but I think part of that is that I loved the whole setting up of the island – plus is had the novelty factor. Even so, such a lot of threads to explore. If think if you sat a whole bunch of people in a room together to discuss this series they’d all come up with different thoughts and concepts.
    A really rewarding read.
    Lynn :D

    • Yeah, I think I like the first better too, but I can`t deny that the second was still, well, excellent!

      I`d love to sit down with a reading group for these books. It would probably make for some amazing discussion!

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