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The Philosopher Kings
by Jo Walton
TOR books, $24.99, 348pp
Published: June 2015

A wonderfully satisfying sequel to The Just City (click here for review). Walton continues the tale of the time travelers collected by the goddess Athene (Athena) and placed on the island of Kallisti (modern day Santorini) which will have a terrible volcanic eruption a thousand years later and found the legend of Atlantis. The Just City is based on Plato’s The Republic.

In this novel, several years have passed and the Just City has splintered off into several factions—all deciding to establish themselves elsewhere—mostly on other islands in the Aegean.

I have to say—to have a firm hand on this novel—you really need to read The Just City because at the end of it is a wonderful debate (simply called The Last Debate) between Athene and Sokrates (Socrates) among others and it is referred to constantly in The Philosopher Kings. This debate is the beginning of the fracture of the Just City into factions.

When Athene, with help from her brother Apollo, established the Just City she not only snatched young children from slavery and great minds near death, but snatched art works that would be destroyed in political upheavals, fires, earthquakes, etc. So she brought Botticelli paintings as well as the complete Winged Victory of Samothrace (the immense headless statue that currently stands at the head of a staircase in the Louvre and is absolutely glorious—even headless) to have a place in the Just City. One of the people Athene rescues pretty much clears out the great Library at Alexandria before it is sacked and burned. So original art amongst the city’s population is very important (as well as what they create themselves).

The god Apollo remains in the Just City in his human incarnation as Pytheas (the citizens do not know he is a god—and as a human—he has no powers, just knowledge). He loses his human love Simmea to an “art” raid (They stole the head to the Winged Victory of Samothrace.) And he wants revenge. But the person he thinks is responsible has sailed off into the Aegean and no one knows exactly where he’s gone. Pytheas takes ship with a crew, some older masters and a passel of his half-breed children to visit the splinter groups from the Just City and to seek his lover’s murderer. On their journey they find a few odd remnants of evacuees and exiles from other lands that have set up their own nascent civilizations on other islands. They are very primitive and hardscrabble. (This is the Bronze Age after all.) And it becomes a topic of heated debate on whether the Republic should send “missionaries” to improve these primitives with knowledge and medicine etc.

Because some of Athene’s original time travel rescues are from much later centuries, the Renaissance, the Victorian era even the 20th century—some of them were raised Christian. And one driven soul decides to establish a “Christian” colony—a thousand years BEFORE Christ….So that’s a bit bizarre—and there is some worry about what that might do to things in the future. What is even more fascinating is his interpretation of Christian teachings and Platonic philosophy; and what we get to hear Apollo /Pytheas say about Christianity in general.

“Our lives are art. It’s part of being a god.” This is a quote from Pytheas to his children. They have the choice whether to go forward and be heroes and gods or to remain simply human. And the art raids—these have been the only outlet for the warrior urges among them. It isn’t all philosophy and debate. Stealing a painting or sculpture and then squabbling over its return has become a common occurrence.

One of the islands they visit is Delos, sacred to Apollo. Three of Pytheas’ children go to a sacred spring and there their god-like powers emerge. So one of them can fly and tell if someone is being truthful, another is a healer and can control the weather and the third can walk on lava—and they can all walk on air.

Pytheas’ daughter with his human love Simmea is named Arete (excellence in classical Greek.) We get a lot of the story from her viewpoint (as well as Apollo.) Other characters narrate their own chapters. But it is Apollo and Arete’s that make up the bulk of this novel and it is a wonderful back and forth view of being a god or godlike and what that means in the world at large—and debating on the different pluses and minuses on simply being human versus being immortal.

And even more—is the experiment of establishing Plato’s Republic a worthy effort or has it proven to be flawed? Is it indeed...just?

The philosophical discussions are meaty and wonderful. I really like how Walton has developed Apollo as he struggles with being human and facing death and facing things he cannot change and emotions he doesn’t really want as Pytheas;  and how his children must wrestle with their divine nature and their decisions to be heroes or just humans.

There is some terrifically constructed drama here when Pytheas finally meets with Kebes, whom he believes killed Simmea, and they decide to have at it with a musical competition which can be in any form. And Kebes believes without a doubt he will win. Kebes has a particularly nasty form of punishment in mind for his competitor whom he hates. What Kebes decides to use in his presentation is just awesome. But he’s up against the god who created music. (Sorry Kebes!)

And when we get to the end of this tale and divine decisions need to be made about whether the Republic and all its splinter factions should go forward—or simply be erased as if they had never happened…the scene is just excellent. As well, of course, as is the debate. A terrific ending.

Seriously: both The Just City and The Philosopher Kings are wonderful thought-provoking novels. They are all about examining who we are and what is the divine spark. What is the best of humanity in the context of civilization and how it should all go forward---including, far into the future.

But read The Just City first because it will make reading this novel that much richer. Imagination at its finest here. ~~Sue Martin

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