I hadn’t even heard of this book until Katharine mischievously sent me a copy because she wanted to know how I would feel about it. And my initial feels are: omg THERE BETTER BE A SEQUEL.
Is that what you were expecting, K?
The premise: Athene (yes, she who sprang fully formed) wonders what would happen if humans attempted to put Plato’s Republic into action – with a little help from her, of course. So she gathers together a bunch of people from across time who have all prayed to her, perhaps inadvertently, after reading The Republic and wanting themselves to put it into practise. And they’re going to collect slave children, and they’re going to try out their city on a certain island that will eventually be destroyed by a volcano… (yes Athene is aware of how recursive this is I LOVE YOU JO WALTON).
Apollo, meanwhile, is confounded by Daphne wanting so much to get away from his tender advances that she was happy to be turned into a tree, so he decides to become mortal to explore ideas of volition and equal significance. And hanging out in the fledgling Republic of the philosopher-kings seems like an interesting and pragmatic way of doing so.
The book’s chapters switch between a few different characters. Apollo gets a few, but not most, which is good because I liked his perspective and seeing what life was like for a being with godly knowledge but human limitations, but it would have got old to have him as the focus. Instead, most of the chapters are from female perspectives. Lucia, renamed Simmea, is from what I take to be the early Christian period; she’s bought as a slave and taken to Thera, destined to be brought up in the first generation of true Republicans. Maia, originally Ethel, was born in Yorkshire in 1841. Well educated for a girl at the time she appears destined for the standard gloomy life of struggling middle class woman, until she happens to cry out to Athene… and she’s transported to Thera to act as one of the guardians, teaching the new generation how to be their best selves and eventually develop into Plato’s philosopher-kings (… well, some of them).
I’ve not read The Republic. In fact, I’ve never read anything of Plato’s in much depth or at much length (I’ve taken some Classics subjects so I must have read a bit… right?). This is not, however, a problem for reading this novel because Walton does a wonderful job of having her characters discuss the various issues and conundrums and ideas that Plato raises – all without it seeming like an info-dump. Just as setting up the city is an experiment for Athene, this book is a thought-experiment itself. This book reminded me in some ways of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, because so much of it is conversation- and ideas-driven. There is some action, but it is not the focus – and most of the action is connected to the ideas, showing them in action in some way. And I never once found it boring.
Slavery, good or bad? And can you have the perfect society as suggested by Plato without slaves to do at least some of the jobs?
Individuals as ‘fit for purpose’: should someone else get to determine what you do for your entire life? Should your worth be entirely determined by the work that you do?
How to be one’s best self: I could not help but think of Bill and Ted, of course. But it is also a deeply intriguing question: how do we help ourselves and those around us be excellent?
Censorship: can it be a good thing?
Who can you trust? How do you know? Are there levels of trust, or areas in which someone is trustworthy and others in which they aren’t?
There is JUST SO MUCH in this book I have only scratched the surface IT IS EXCELLENT.
The one off-note that didn’t really work for me was the rape early on of one of the guardians. While it was occasionally referenced later on and certainly had some impact on the woman involved, I didn’t really see why it needed to be a part of the narrative. And it seems weird to say that this is a minor quibble, given the topic, but overall I think it’s dealt with mostly ok; it just didn’t quite sit right with me.
Aaaaand in finding the image for this post I’ve just discovered that the second book already exists in the world AAAAAAAH *buys*. (Also buys a hard copy of The Just City, for re-reading and shoving into people’s hands. My mother MUST read this.) You can get The Just City from Fishpond.