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'Philosopher Kings' Leaves Plato's Republic Far Behind

Jo Walton's The Just City, which came out in January and which I utterly adored, ends on a wicked cliff-hanger: The real-world version of Plato's Republic that scholars and philosophers from different times and places tried to build has fractured along its fault-lines; all is chaos, uncertainty, and recrimination and we don't know what's going to happen to our (by now deeply beloved) point-of-view characters. With what bright eagerness did I look forward, therefore, to The Philosopher Kings, hungry to pick up from where I left off, to know how Simmea, Apollo, and Maia address these problems ...

... only to hear Walton cackling, Trollope-like, at my devastation in finding that The Philosopher Kings is set THIRTY YEARS LATER.

(Were I writing this elsewhere on the Internet I would now insert a suitably outraged animated GIF.)

After the cold-water shock of that narrative upheaval — not to mention the plot-launching loss of my favorite character, which happens within the first few pages — I was, perhaps, not very well disposed toward the book. But Walton's easy conversational prose and all the other characters I love drew me in again in no time, and I realized that if this was going to be a book at least partly about mourning and loss, it was terribly clever of her to stun the reader with such a thunderclap of grief at the outset.

In The Philosopher Kings, the squabbling factions from The Just City have all founded their own versions of Plato's Republic a few miles apart, and Kebes — the first book's troublemaker — has stolen a ship called The Goodness, sailed away with several like-minded companions and has not been heard from since. Many have stayed in the first city, known as the Remnant, relaxing some rules and trying out others — but also contending with increasingly vicious raids from the neighboring cities, resulting in casualties on all sides.

This context provides the catalyst for the meat of the story: A journey of sea exploration, partly in pursuit of the elusive Kebes, undertaken by Apollo and Simmea's children and several other volunteers. As is ever the case with journeys, there's as much introspection as there is exploration, as the children discover the ways in which they are or aren't gifted with strange powers from their godly parentage — and what that means to their families, friends and futures. They also each wrestle with the question of justice, and how quickly and terribly it shifts into revenge.

Trilogies are tricky beasts, subject to contradictory truisms. It's commonplace to say that the middle book of a trilogy is the weakest (hello, The Two Towers), but my experience of more recent trilogies is that the second book is the strongest, where the story really hits its stride, before inevitably disappointing me with a limp concluding volume.

The Philosopher Kings is an odd duck in this respect; it's not a weak book by any means, but I did not love it it anywhere near as much as I loved The Just City. It's just thoroughly different, deliberately shattering any generic expectations it might have led a reader to build up in the first volume. Where The Just City invited argument, dialogue, thought experiment, The Philosopher Kings sets out explanations, explorations, certainties and resolutions in ways that can't help but feel insufficient and unsatisfying. This isn't to say the book's unenjoyable; I couldn't put it down, for all that some resolutions angered and others upset me.

I'm left, ultimately, feeling that The Philosopher Kings has done interesting and important work, even if it wasn't as much of a master stroke as The Just City — introduced wonderful new characters, said goodbye to others, asked hard questions. The ending is a knock-out, tongue-in-cheek deus ex machina twist explicitly stating that no matter how much The Philosopher Kings departed from The Just City, the third and final book, Necessity, will move exponentially farther away — both literally and figuratively. If there's one thing Walton is brilliant at — and there are roughly 1 million of those — it's not letting you know quite what kind of story you're in, and leading you to relish the discovery.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

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Amal El-Mohtar