(FYI, as with The Just City, some discussion of the less than tasteful aspects of Bronze Age and Classical life, including rape and torture)
I find it odd to read two very good books in quick succession. Maybe this means I read too many books that aren’t brilliant, but I think I enjoy that. I like the contrast, and it makes it so much easier to highlight what I did and did not enjoy in each, because I have something to which to compare it, so close at hand. Reading two books next to each other that are not only both excellent, but excellent in some of the same ways… I find it very hard to have much meaningful to say about the second, simply because it feels like I’ve said it all before. And of course, this is what I’ve just done, so I’m going to be repeating myself a little bit. Apologies.
What Jo Walton seems to do wonderfully – which she did in The Just City and which she’s done again in The Philosopher Kings – is right beautifully plausible characters. Real people, with real, relatable emotions and inconsistencies, which make them so enjoyable to read. But it’s not just about them being enjoyable… it makes the whole plot work better and hang together because it feels like Walton has thought properly and deeply about what a person would do in a given circumstance, what a person who thinks in these ways we’ve seen already would do when presented with a particular choice. It also means that, while the story isn’t predictable, there’s a certain inevitability to how her characters act because they are all so consistent with the natures she’s set out for them. It’s beautiful, and incredibly satisfying to read. And I think all the more impressive because some of the characters she uses are real, historical people, or characters who have existing works about them (like the Greek gods), and even the ones who aren’t are so completely diverse, that she must have had to put a lot of work in to get everyone so… right.
Like her first book, The Philosopher Kings takes place on an island in the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, populated by scholars from throughout time who prayed to Athene that they could live in Plato’s Republic, and the children they bought at slave markets in the Classical and pre-Classical periods to populate it, and whom they have trained in philosophy and art and all the other trappings of the Platonic Good Life as they interpret it. The Philosopher Kings takes place twenty years later, and follows mostly on in the issues that divided people at the end of The Just City. I had worried that it would suffer as a sequel to such a good book, especially since the first ended in such a natural place, but it seems to me that this was unfounded (though I know others disagree). By skipping over the next twenty years, she’s brought us to a very good point for a new conflict, where she has some backstory to fill in that we didn’t already have, and where she has the space to have allowed events to develop and thus give us a new problem, even if it’s one built on what we already new. It also means she has had space to create new characters, including one of our viewpoint characters, indeed, the main one, Arete. She’s the daughter of Pytheas and Simmea, from the first book, and fills much the same role that Simmea’s narration did there, providing the logical, analytical counterpoint to Apollo’s confusions and feelings. We also still have chapters by Maia, who remains a joy to read, though hers are much sparser, as she’s grown older and less plot-central. Where before the chapters were much more evenly distributed, in this, Arete gets by far the bulk, with only occasional interludes with Apollo and Maia, providing a bit of an outside perspective on plot-pertinent issues, rather than a whole separate thread. It wouldn’t have worked in the first book, but given the different nature of the plot, I think it’s a good choice here.
Less good, I think, is the choice to wander a little more closely into the reality of the Greek gods in her world. We knew they were there in The Just City, of course, but things like their divine powers were left vague and unexplored. I think, in hindsight, this was a good decision, because there’s an intrinsic silliness to a character that can, for instance, fly, that rather detracts from the seriousness of a narrative about the equal significance of all humans, about learning about human emotions and about posterity.
The themes of The Philosopher Kings are rather less immediately obvious than they were in The Just City, but again, I think this is a good choice. We don’t really learn what the plot was driving towards until we get there, when suddenly everything clicks into place. But she has kept some commonality. Rape was very much the big theme of The Just City, and while it plays a much smaller part in The Philosopher Kings, it is in some ways just as significant. Events from all the way back in the first book have had time to play out, and we see their ramifications and problems. Specifically [spoilers for The Just City], we see how Kebes’ rape of Simmea, and its effect on both of them, have moulded how they both lived their adult lives. We also see the ongoing effects of Ikaros’ rape of Maia, and even to some extent Apollo’s slowly evolving understanding of rape as a concept. Apollo has continued the growth we saw him go through in The Just City, learning to understand how a person can have equal significance, and what his attempted rape of Daphne really meant, and we saw him come to accept that, regret it, and really learn how to move on as a person. This left him in a very interesting position [spoilers for The Philosopher Kings] when he finally learns that Kebes raped Simmea in the final festival of Hera. He’s angry, as you’d expect, but also has a greater insight into how Kebes thought, how Kebes could think to do as he did, and that, with Apollo’s growth as a person, puts him in a position of real importance to the narrative. He totally understands why Kebes behaved as he did… and now totally understands how abhorrent a thing it was to do. He has spent a lifetime learning to appreciate people as people, as their own things who cannot be owned, and now he’s confronted with his own crime but with his new perspective, and is forced to deal with it all over again. Walton handles it beautifully, and I certainly found myself remaining in that same state of enjoyment and understanding of Apollo without forgiveness, exactly. He still did as he did, but we have watched him become a better person than it, and so while we cannot forgive him (because it’s not our place), we can enjoy the person he’s become.
But Walton also branches out in this book [continued spoilers], into torture and inequality, as she explores civilisations outside her original Just City. And she handles it all with the same thoughtfulness she managed in the first book, picking it apart sensitively, and even with characters with strong viewpoints, but managing to remain a little distant, to allow the reader to make up their own mind. She has the characters from the Just City confront some of their own prejudices, and it is absolutely wonderful.
In this and in all other things, it feels like Walton has built on the foundations she made in the first book, and made a beautifully developed sequel. I won’t say it’s better than the original, but I think it may equal it. The new characters she brings in are wonderful, but we keep some of the old too, and while she continues some of her themes and ideas, she’s developed others into new ones too. It is, in many ways, the best of what a sequel should be, and I love it.