In honor of Jo Walton making my hidden gems list not once but twice, with two books from one of my favorite series, I thought it was time for me to post my review of The Just City. The Thessaly series is a total genre bender- it has elements of mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. It’s heavy on the philosophy and will leave the reader with lots of things to think about when it’s all over.
The end of this book moved me to tears because it was so profound and so beautiful and at the end it sort of just smacks you in the face when you realize how very important and relevant it all is.
I picked up The Just City because GoodReads said: hey- you liked Too Like the Lightning, read this! Well- it both is and isn’t like Too Like the Lightning. There is a lot of philosophy involved but I don’t think the plot was even remotely as complex and the philosophy is sort of fed to you rather then engaging you. I don’t mean this as a fault in any way- I’m just saying, it’s different. (This might also have been a difference of reading solo vs reading as a group.)
It starts out sort of slow. By the halfway point I was thinking it was a solid 3 Star book. Then a 4 Star, and it took me all the way to the end to be able to say it’s a 5 Star read. It’s dense. Be patient with it. It’s worth sticking it out.
The premise is this (chapter one spoilers ahead): Apollo is chasing the nymph Daphne and then rather than be raped she prays to Artemis and asks to be turned into a tree. Apollo just can’t believe that anyone would rather be a tree than mate with him so he decides to become a human to find out why. His sister Athene says, well I’m working on a thought experiment, recreating Plato’s Republic. You could go be a human there and figure out why Daphne turned into a tree. So he agrees and the stage is set.
This is largely a character driven novel. All the characters brought something different to the table. Apollo had the knowledge of a god but didn’t understand human struggle. Simmea is a black child from Northern Africa (I know her grandmother is from Libya but the way she phrased it made it seem like she was not) coming to The Just City while she is too young to question the inequalities of the world. Maia is a woman from 19th century England, a world which does not value women who think. And then we have dear Sokrates, who never gets a POV chapter but was always delightful to read.
(I’m going to try and avoid spoilers here but for those of you that don’t want them, I don’t know if I can say what I want to say without revealing some aspects of the book/plot/etc. so read with caution.)
I adored all these characters and their unique perspectives. I enjoyed reading their dialogues with Sokrates and felt Walton did an excellent job of giving them dialogue that would have come from people with their backgrounds. The workers (robots Athene brought from the future) were an excellent literary device to propose the questions Walton wanted us to be asking and truly proved for some thought-provoking reading. What is personhood? Who qualifies? How do you make everyone equal in practice?
Though I suppose the Just City (the city in the book not the book) succeeds in many aspects, it fails in many others. The practice of labeling people: iron, bronze, silver or gold for example is extremely indicative of inequality. Golds pursue art and philosophy and mathematics all day while Irons do all the work. So we have a system that is just based on ability I suppose but by making the city just we have also made it a city of inequalities. Do justice and equality contradict each other? Is it fair to divide people, not on the basis of skin color or sex or sexuality, but on systems of ability? Does the man who is poor at math deserve to be relegated to field work all day? Do the women who don’t succeed at art deserve the job of raising children all day? Is this what they want to do? And how do you reconcile a desire for personal happiness with justice and equality? (This speaks more to the aspects of the novel which touch on eugenics and divisions of labor.)
The more I think about it the deeper it all goes. I would like to add that as an added bonus, Jo Walton thanks Ada Palmer in the Acknowledgements section in regards to help she gave with Plato and philosophy so of course I was giddy with excitement to read that section.
I loved this book. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a read with more substance than action. I’m now off to go see if my library has Thessaly #2 available for download.