The Just City – Jo Walton

First thing’s first – be aware that this book (and thus ‘blog post) covers some… distasteful topics, predominantly rape and slavery, and does so at least partially from a Classicalised point of view.

Right, so. I was looking for Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, because it was recommended to me after my post about The Tropic of Serpents. Unfortunately, when I went into Waterstone’s (in actual, real life, in an actual book shop – strange, I know), they didn’t have it. They did have another book by the author, however, so I picked it up to have a look:

Apologies for poor-quality photo - I couldn't find a picture of the blurb anywhere online.

Apologies for poor-quality photo – I couldn’t find a picture of the blurb anywhere online.

Well, that’s a blurb very much designed to suck me in. I got to the third sub-header and was just “YEP BUYING THIS NOW”. There was no way I was leaving the shop without it. Because I’m predictable like that.

Sometimes, that habit of “if it’s Classics-themed, I’ll read it” has led me to bad places; not everyone who writes Romans writes them well, let’s be honest. But sometimes, it leads to wonderful, glorious places. Spoilers: this was one of those times. Honestly, I think this is one of the best books I’ve read in a good while.

For all that the blurb tells you very clearly that the book is Classics-themed, it doesn’t give you much of an insight into what the story’s about. Not usefully, anyway. The first chapter rather does that job for you instead, as narrated by the god Apollo. He’s one of our three viewpoint characters, and I think the most interesting, though it’s a close tie. He sets out pretty early that what’s going on is Athene wants to run an experiment based on the Republic of Plato, to see if it would actually work as a system of governance/way of life. Apollo gets involved because he wants to learn about the specifics of some part of the human experience.

Hum. I don’t want to spoil, but I think I might have to give some (quite minor ones) to do justice to what I want to talk about. Apologies, spoilers avast!

In Walton’s setting, the gods live outside of time, so human chronology and their own personal chronologies are not necessarily in synchronicity. Thus, for Apollo, his attempted rape of Daphne has just occurred, and he is confused. Why did she pray to be turned into a tree rather than let him sleep with her? In his confusion, he seeks out Athene for her wisdom, and in an attempt to get him to understand human choices, and agency, and desire (or lack thereof), she suggests he become a mortal, and live the span of a mortal life, because no matter how she explains he’s not getting it, and she doesn’t have all that much patience for him.

So right from the start, we have Apollo the attempted-rapist, wanting to know why he was rejected. This shouldn’t make for a sympathetic character. And at the start, indeed, it really doesn’t. Apollo is dense, and whiney, and impatient, and above all alien to the reader. But bear with him – it’s very much worth it.

To tempt him into taking her up on her suggestion, Athene also asks whether he’d like to join her experiment. The idea is sufficiently fascinating that Apollo goes for it, and thus, our first viewpoint character for the Just City itself.

In addition to Apollo, we have a Victorian spinster-scholar, who prays to Athene that she might live somewhere where she could be exactly that, as her own life is a trapping one, dull and mostly empty of stimulation. She becomes one of the Masters of the city, and we follow her, watching as the experiment is set up and the rules argued and put in place, as the masters determine how best to interpret Plato’s vision. The other masters are a mixture of historical figures (including both Cicero – whom Walton seems to dislike somewhat – and Atticus) from throughout time and originals of Waltons, who are nonetheless classical enthusiasts. There is evidently a lot of work put into their settings and backgrounds, and the way they interact is absolutely brilliant.

Our third character is a young girl who was captured and enslaved in the Classical Mediterranean, then bought by the Masters aged 11 as one of the many children to be brought into the city as the first generation to be taught. To me it feels like she is the main character, who drives the narrative the most. She has the most thoughtful internal monologues, and provides the clearest and most interesting insights into the progression of the plot.

And so the book follows the setting up and progression of Athene’s experiment from these three viewpoints – the female master, the female student, and the immortal god in mortal form who has joined the other students to learn about humanity. We get three very different takes on the system, and three very different sets of knowledge about the world. From Apollo we often get completely authoritative statements on the nature of the universe. From Maia, the master, we get the view from the (relative) future, looking back on a romanticised past and measuring it against expectations when it is encountered in reality. From Simmea, the student, we learn to understand the system from a more in-context point of view, and someone very much learning how it works as the same time we are. The three build together beautifully, often focussed on very different narratives of their own, interacting at key points only, and giving us a brilliantly complete picture. They all get their own plots that join together to form a greater whole, and have very different emotional focusses.

And so we come, as I mentioned earlier, to the thing about rape. So we already know it’s a key issue for Apollo and his development as a character, but it features too in Maia’s story, very much from a different perspective. Maia’s feelings and changing views, alongside Apollo’s growing awareness and reinterpretation of his past actions, again, build together beautifully, and complement the two characters’ growth. Simmea stands between the two of them, metaphorically, as coming into contact with the idea more on a theoretical basis and analysing and discussing and thinking about it from the abstract perspective, between their two real-world experiences. That is, for me, very much Simmea’s role in the story as a whole. She provides the thought and the rationality and the reason that underpins the emotional development of the other two viewpoint characters. Even when Simmea is emotional – and she is, because she is a wonderfully well-written character whom we watch grow up – she has an undercurrent of sensible, calm thought that sets the tone for her chapters. She’s the explainer for the other two, even if not directly to them.

Now I said Apollo was dislikeable at the start, and he was, but very much of his chapters are about his growing awareness and understanding of human interaction and feeling, and so we really get to see his character grow and change, to the point where he becomes incredibly… if not sympathetic, then understandable. The book isn’t about forgiving him for what he tried to do. But it’s about him learning that he did something wrong, and understanding how and why and how to do better. It’s… complex. Simmea is a very important figure for him because she facilitates his understanding, and their interactions are by far the best feature of the book for me.

I sound like I’m not really mentioning much in the way of plot here, or writing or pace. And I’m not. That’s not to say there isn’t any – there’s some great mystery stuff and excitement and so on – but it didn’t feel like the key focus of the book for me. It’s very very much a book about people, in stark contrast to Dune, and because Walton does her people so very well, they stand out far more than what’s going on around them. It’s paced very well, though at times feels like things could be fleshed out more. It’s not a long book. But that sort of works to its advantage too, because it does not descend into lengthy internal monologuing, which could become tedious. Walton’s writing has a lovely clear, conciseness to it too, which condenses without making curt, and explains without going over the top. It feels very well crafted.

The fact that I’ve easily got to 1400 words now should make this clear – I love this book. So very much. There’s a sequel, and I shall read the heck out of it, but even if there weren’t, it’s a wonderful thing in and of itself. It takes a setting I am bound to love, and then makes me care less about the Classics and more about the characters, which as far as I’m concerned is a great feat, much to be praised. It was also a very lovely contrast with Dune… and with the next book I read, which was an anthology of Lovecraft stories. I will try to get to that as soon as possible. In the meantime, read The Just City. Go. Now. Do it.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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One Response to The Just City – Jo Walton

  1. “… not everyone who writes Romans writes them well, let’s be honest.” Love it.

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