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Book Review: The Philosopher Kings

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The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

From acclaimed, award-winning author Jo Walton: 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 “Pytheas” 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–Pytheas/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.

The Philosopher Kings is a continuation of the story in The Just City. Decades have passed since The Last Debate and the population has splintered into five separate groups each attempting to “do Plato right,” according to their best interpretation. However resources are scarce. One in particular, the art recovered in time traveling excursions with Athene, has become the object of petty but persistent warfare.

Simmea, arguably the heroine of the first book, is mortally wounded at the beginning of the story and Apollo struggles with her last words and her loss throughout the narrative. It’s an excellent parallel with his confusion over Daphne which prompted him to incarnate in the first place. What might be a straight revenge plot in the hands of a lesser writer becomes a discourse on mortality, grief, and maturity.

I’ll admit Simmea’s absence threatened to shake my confidence in the book. But like all of us when we die, she lives on in the hearts and minds of her colleagues, friends, and family. Her golden example inspires and informs their quest for justice.

Her point of view is replaced by her daughter Arete, the only child she had with Pytheas/Apollo. His perspective and that of the eighteenth century woman cum Platonic Master Maia continue to shape the contours of the story. Thus three generations are represented as well as the mortal, immortal, and quasi mortal elements of every good Greek epic.

Where The Just City explored excellence and justice in the limited context of the city and its origins, The Philosopher Kings explores the rights, roles, and responsibilities of gods, heroes, and humans. The inhabitants of the cities confront their relationships with one another and their obligations to the exoteric culture and even spacetime itself. And they explore the tension between fixed knowledge and learning.

Recommended for fans of The Name of the Wind, Homer, and Count Zero.

You can read the first two chapters at Tor.com. The third book, Necessity, is in the editing stage. Walton posted some useful links for those who are interested in exploring Plato and the Masters further.

 

 

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