The Philosopher Kings
by Jo Walton
Cover Artist: The School of Athens (detail) by Raphael / Vatican Museums and Galleries /
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765332677
Date: 30 June 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Philosopher Kings has more action than The Just City, but less world (well city in this case) building.
Jo Walton's The Philosopher Kings is a continuation of The Just City published in January. In the first book the Goddess Athene took people from all over history, including robots from the future, to set up a city modeled on Plato's Republic. Her brother Apollo incarnates himself as a mortal named Pytheas to live fully in this experiment. The Philosopher Kings opens 20 years after the end of The Just City. Many of the residents of the original Just City, now called the Remnant City, have left to form four other cities on the same island. Another 150 people, led by Pytheas’ have left the island completely. As in the first book, this one has three narrators, Apollo, Maia (a teacher from England in the mid-nineteenth century), and a new character, Arete, the daughter of Pytheas/Apollo with Simmea (who was one of the three narrators of The Just City).
After the cities split up, they fought each other to capture the art treasures the Just City had rescued from history; although Apollo admits the real reason was that the cities, following Plato's model, trained its young people for war and now they had someone to fight. In the first chapter, Apollo's wife Simmea is killed in an art raid by an unknown group. Apollo would have killed his mortal self to regain his god powers in order to save her, but follows her dying wish, "Phytheas, don't be an idiot." He becomes obsessed with the idea that she was killed by a group, unseen for the past 20 years, and puts together an expedition to find and punish them.
Meanwhile, his daughter Arete (whose name means excellence), now age 15, wonders what she and her brothers would have to do to become gods themselves. Apollo tells her that she would need to find "a new and original way of being Arete. Being excellent that is!" Arete grew up with four half-brothers (three through her father, and one, Neleus, through her mother). Neleus is occasionally jealous that all his siblings are secretly half-god and he is not. This provides him with a bit more characterization than the other brothers receive.
The Philosopher Kings delves more into the time travel aspect than did the first book. Characters speculate about meeting the heroes of the Trojan war and worry about the effects of contact with the more primitive ancient Greek society. It also deals more with the subject of acquiring special powers and learning how to use them.
Characterization is strong for the main characters--especially Arete and Phytheas. Unfortunately, Walton is less successful with the minor characters. The brothers are mostly interchangeable. There is sufficient characterization of Kebes and Ikaros (an antagonist of Maia in the first book) for the reader to understand their actions. The book is also lacking a strong charismatic character, like Sokrates in the first book. Another change is the focus on the exploration plot instead of the city building and struggle to follow Plato's instructions. In addition, the novel is missing the science fictional elements of the first--the question of the worker machine’s sentience--although the ending is definitely science fiction.
The Philosopher Kings cannot really be understood by readers who have not read the first book. Although it takes place 20 years later and has a somewhat different cast (with Arete and her brothers in place of Sokrateas and Simmea) in many ways the book is the second half of The Just City. Together, the two volumes raise a considerable number of philosophical issues. Readers who like books requiring thought and which leave you wanting to debate the characters, author, or anyone who read them, will enjoy this duology. Those looking for a mindless summer beach book should keep looking.