Jo Walton, Thessaly,
Plato's Republic, Greek gods, Socrates, time travel and robots. Honestly, what's not to like? ...
Apollo has pursued Daphne who, to escape him, has prayed to Artemis: to save her, the goddess transforms the young woman into a tree. But Apollo doesn't understand why Daphne has prefered this fate to his ardor. He goes to talk about it to his sister Athena and she tells him that he would understand if he became human for a time. As it happens, she knows the best place to do that: she is gathering philosophers throughout time to bring into existence Plato's Republic on an island that will become Atlantis.
Those philosophers begin to buy children slaves and to raise them by following Plato's plan. Everything goes more or less smoothly until Athena brings to the island Socrates who, as is his custom, questions everything including the robots that were imported from the future to do the menial tasks.
To say that I have issues with Plato's Republic is a euphemism. But Jo Walton tackles every criticism I throw at it. It's not a blind glorification of its ideas because The Just City, as Socrates would, questions Plato's Republic and its ideals. The novel puts characters, people, into this utopia. And by making this system lived in, all its faults appear: eugenism, caste system, family... The Just City is a very balanced story that presents the positive aspects of the Republic, but where Plato describes only a system, Jo Walton puts people into the system, shows how the system affects them and how fallible they are to make it work.
I have also liked a lot the themes of consent and freedom that are felt throughout the novel and that we find back in Necessity, the last volume of the trilogy.
I had read Among Others a few years ago and Jo Walton's style was contemplative, with a pace to match, sometimes a bit too much so for my taste. But in The Just City, the writing is more direct, maybe less poetic too, but it makes it a highly enjoyable straight forward novel with relatable characters you deeply care about (1). Yes, you care even for the robots.
The Just City is the first volume of a trilogy called Thessaly. The following volumes are The Philosophers Kings and Necessity and are very good follow-up that move the story forward while remaining thought challenging.
It's also a trilogy that is genre bending: it veers into scifi at times, it goes back to the roots of European fantasy, it reflects on spirituality as well as philosophy and morality, and it's definitely not your average mass market fantasy novel. It also reminded me of this ironic Terry Pratchett quote: "it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people." (Night Watch)
I'm not sure I'd recommend The Just City to philosophy teachers (I can perfectly picture them niggling after each and every detail!) but teenagers who start studying philosophy will certainly like it and learn from it.
But apart from these two specific groups of people, I think The Just City is a novel to be read by anyone and everyone: it is thought challenging, it's a great SFF novel while not being confined by the genre or exclusively readable by fans of the genre and it is definitely a page turner.
The author's website.
Update, June 2017: the trilogy Thessaly has been shortlisted for the 2017 Mythopoeic Award.
(1) Ms Walton, if you ever read this, I'm still not happy about what happens at the beginning of The Philosophers Kings. It had to happen, I know, I know... But I'm not happy about it!
Update, on the 1st of December, a few hours later: Jo Walton was kind enough to tweet a reply to my note just above.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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