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 “Pythias” 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–Pythias/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.
Genre labels are a blessing and a curse. They’re nice when you need a quick and dirty framing device for a discussion, but they can be an absolute bitch when the book you’re trying to describe refuses to fit into neatly. To whit, if you really pressed me, I’d call this sci-fi/historical fantasy. It’s science fiction, because time travel makes the entire series possible, the cities exist in this bubble of space time that allows them to interact with the greater world, yet not leave a lasting impact. It’s historical because the world it exists against is about 1000 B.C.E, several generations before Troy ever occurs, and it’s fantasy because the Greek Gods are quite real, and their powers are manifest in the (currently mortal) Apollo’s demi-god children. It sounds horrifically confusing, and trying to wrap your head around its neat category does it a disservice: it all comes together remarkably well.
The Philosopher Kings is a sequel to The Just City (a book I haven’t read yet, but I am planning on rectifying), a book in which Athene gathers various humans from throughout history and creates a new society, trying to live up to the Platonic ideals, as laid out in The Republic. It’s a world where Plato is held up in almost as high regard as the Gods themselves with his seminal text acting as a kind of sacred text. As you might suspect, this book is rather heavy on the philosophy. It doesn’t preach Plato, but by the same token, you’ll definitely get more out of it if you have read The Republic, if only because it’ll let you understand some of the discussions more. And while that may seem to be a bit of a tall order to read fantasy, I don’t think it’s really that unreasonable of a request. This is unquestionably a niche title. Not only is it philosophy heavy, it is action light and the combination of the two may well be off putting to a lot of readers. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful discussion of what it means to be human and questions how we should handle ourselves and will give you a lot to chew on, if you so desire.
I really only have one complaint about this book: the book is told through multiple points of view, and all are in the first person. I find that the narrators don’t have distinct voices and so you really need to pay attention to the chapter titles which tell you whose point of view we’re now in: it’s otherwise too easy to get confused because you lost track of who the narrator is. I think the story is strong enough to make it worth the extra hassle, but really, authors who go this route NEED to make character voices distinct because when they are, we can follow along and never need that header.
Overall, I think this is a really thoughtful read. If you want something that you haven’t read before, give this a look. I think you’ll be as satisfied as I am.
Verdict: Buy It
Available: June 30th