The Philosopher Kings
There’s a big surprise at the beginning of Jo Walton’s new novel The Philosopher Kings that may take readers of the first one, The Just City, aback. It certainly did me. But then the book got better and better until at the end, I thought it was even better than the first one had been. One of the things that “makes this book so great,” to use Walton’s own phrase, is that in the end, there are spaceships and aliens.
But this is a sequel to her book about Athena’s plan to establish a version of Plato’s republic. In this book, the characters are continuing to pursue excellence in order to become Philosopher Kings. This one centers on Pytheas, who is Apollo in mortal form, and his children, especially his daughter Arete (“excellence”) who is 15 and almost ready to take her city’s adulthood tests. She lives in the original “Just” city, but now there are other cities established by its former inhabitants, with different interpretations of what is “just” and “excellent.” Plays, for instance, banned in the original city, are now allowed because the younger generation have voted for them. Arete’s teacher Ficino tells her “as far as I know they’re allowed in Sokratea and the City of Amazons, but banned in Psyche and Athenia.” The conflict in the novel is that the inhabitants of the different cities all want the art that was collected for the original Just City, and they are now conducting “art raids” with real weapons in order to get it and take it to their own cities.
Arete and Pythea, along with some of her brothers and the masters Ficino and Maia, go on a sea voyage to visit some of the other cities and recover a certain piece of art, and along the way she explains what has puzzled readers of Homer in the modern era: “when I looked up and out the sea was, well, wine-dark as Homer puts it. The sea was a deep dark blue of precisely the same reflective luminosity as rich red wine.”
Some of the farthest cities, the ones established by Kebes, who has taken back his original name of Matthias, turn out to be Christian; Aristomache explains to Arete and Maia that “Yayzu came down to Earth to save us all” when they find her in the city that Matthias has named Lucia.
The long-simmering conflict between Kebes/Matthias and Pythea/Apollo come to a head in this book, and they challenge each other to a contest, the prize for which is the legal ability for the victor to kill the loser. There are additional reasons for conflict in this book, but the root of it, as Pythea explains, is that “he was my dark and twisted mirror, and forced me to confront” things like the wish to “possess” Simmea.
Readers’ ideas are carried along the spectrum of what should be legal and what is acceptable because we’ve always known about it all the way to what is brutal and horrible beyond imagining when a winner is declared in the contest between Kebes/ Matthias and Pythea/Apollo. Arete looks at the tools Kebes has brought with him to the contest
“with a start of horror. Once he had pointed it out I could imagine it all too easily. Bound to the wood by the iron rings and the straps, and then skinned alive. How horrible! Even worse than crucifixion. Surely all incarnate gods didn’t have to end up dying in horrible ways? Surely? Aristomache said Yayzu had come back in his divine form, but she hadn’t mentioned what he’d done to the torturers afterward. I hoped it was something really appropriate.”
As the contest begins, Arete
“looked down at the little knives where they were laid out so neatly. Everyone in the crowd seemed to recognize them. This must be something they did often enough to have the tools for it. And, most disturbing of all, they came crowding into the colosseum and brought their children to watch.”
We learn, along with Arete and her brothers, what it means to be mortal and have to carry out the judgment of those who believe they are serving justice.
Both Pythea and his daughter learn what death means in this book. Pythea sets up one of the perspectives on it, saying early in the book that marriage is “a decades-long conversation.” Later Arete, upon the death of one of her teachers, says “I knew what death meant now. It was conversation cut off.”
At the end, Zeus comes in and gets all the best lines, including this one:
“And there is no such thing as omnipotence, and omniscience is extremely overrated. As for omnibenevolence, I’m sure you realize by now that we’re doing our best. And time is a Mystery, by which I mean you are welcome to make up your own theories and I’ll be grateful if any of them comes close to being a useful analogy.”
There will be a third and final book in this series, Necessity, and I’m hoping it will be as much better than this one as this one was better than the first.