The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton, Book Review

Following last week’s post for The Just City, I wanted to finish posting my reviews of the series.  I love these books and think they have some important messages to share.

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Rating:  ★★★★1/2

The Just City  was just so beautiful and provided so much food for thought. The Philosopher Kings gives you plenty of things to think about but it does so in a much less obvious way. You have to look a little harder for it, and the focus has shifted. I also missed the dialogues between Simmea and Apollo and Sokrates, and really everyone. There seemed to be much less of that this time.

But it was still an excellent read and very much worth continuing if you enjoyed the first book. There is a lot of focus on religion this go around and I think Walton handled it very smoothly by presenting two ends of the spectrum and one in the middle. The likenesses drawn between Jesus and Apollo especially were very thoughtful. I think some of the other themes here are death, grief and mourning. While there are very few character deaths in The Just City, there are a few big ones in The Philosopher Kings.

Later in the book, Art and its importance in the wide world become a big focus. This is a line of thought I found particularly interesting, and made me recall a debate I had in one of my college classes regarding art. How should art, especially art with historical significance be divided up among the world? Who owns it when the creators are long gone? The debate in college was mostly in regards to the Parthenon’s Marbles, now housed in Britain. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that British/UK citizens and UK tourists, can go there and see a bit of Greece, see a bit of history, learn something, and appreciate the greatness and excellence of people that came thousands of years before us. On the other hand, it really is rather appalling that the Parthenon stands incomplete. Those marbles could bring tourism to Greece and elevate their poor economy. However, what of those people who might never be able to afford to go to Greece and see them? Shouldn’t they have an opportunity to see them somewhere else? Somewhere that might be closer to home? I still don’t have an answer for this that feels sufficient, and I was really delighted to see Walton touch on it here. I live not too far from the Boston Museum of Art which houses Roman mosaics, Egyptian sculptures, and at the time I visited, a touring display of Da Vinci. I am sincerely appreciative of my opportunity to lay my eyes on history like that and likely would never have had the opportunity to see them in my lifetime if they weren’t available in one place so close to home, but aside from the paintings, it also seems destructive. What of the people of Egypt and Rome who can’t look upon those places they came from and see them whole? Is it fair? Is it right?

Sorry- tangent over. I adored Apollo in the first book and I still adored him here. Ficino wasn’t somebody I appreciated enough in the first book but his character in the absence of Sokrates was really able to shine.  Arete was truly a wonderful addition to the book. She was similar to Simmea in some ways and completely different in others and I loved her chapters and seeing her thought process.

This book is much more action oriented then the second. There was rarely a dull moment. I didn’t think the climax could possibly come close to the one in The Just City, but even I was impressed. I absolutely can’t wait for the third book and I’m only sorry I didn’t finish this sooner in the day so I could run to the library and pick it up.

Content Warnings: Talk of rape but no actual rape, and a scene of torture. It isn’t graphic in the way of Stephen King, but it was still pretty tough.

Throwback Thursday: The Just City by Jo Walton

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.

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Rating:  ★★★★★

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.

Circe by Madeline Miller

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Rating:  ★★★★★

Blurb (from GoodReads): In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus….To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

 

This may very well be the last book I have time to finish this year, and I am not sad for it. This book deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it, and I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical.

There aren’t any words I could say to do it justice. The blurb doesn’t do it any justice at all because it was the blurb that put me off it for so long. Truthfully- it just seemed boring.

It’s not. This isn’t so much a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, (though in some ways it is) but a saga of Circe, the least loved of all the gods, the least powerful, the least pretty, the least wanted. Time and time again she is thrown low and overcomes it. That is not to say she is without faults- she is far from perfect. But by the end of it, regardless of what she may have done, you can’t help but cheer for her.

The writing is lush and beautiful.  It is everything I would have wanted from a Greek retelling.  It has a sweep-you-away quality that just makes you feel like you’re sitting by a roaring fire on a cold winter night listen to your grandmother tell stories of her childhood.

The characters were also fantastic.  Circe was my favorite and a lot of that is due to the time we spend with her.  Other characters flit in and out of Circe’s life, and they all have their own voices and characterizations, but it is harder to connect with them since they might have only a few chapters they were involved in.

Aside from Circe, there is plenty of other greek mythology to go around. There is the birth of the minotaur, Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Jason and the Argonauts and the golden fleece and his wife, the witch, Medea. There is story upon story upon story, all beautifully and carefully told. Many of them were easily recognizable and they all brought a smile to my face.

I have been hesitant to try Miller’s The Song of Achilles because I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls so much, but now it’s become a must-read.  If you have ever enjoyed any Greek tale at all- pick this up. You will not be disappointed.