Necessity, by Jo Walton

NecessityThis is probably a very strange book to read on vacation, but nonetheless I found myself at my in-laws’ beach house, hiding out from the sun and the heat (because dudes, it is HOT in Florida lately), fully engrossed with this book. And then when I finished it, I went swimming, because I’m not a heathen.

My sister-in-law asked me for some book recommendations while I was in the middle of this novel, and I was like, you should totally read this series! The first book is about setting up Plato’s Just City, and then the second book is about how that actually works in actual life with actual humans, and then this third one is about, um, I don’t know, it’s weird?

Now that I’ve finished the book, it’s still kind of weird, though really, so is the whole series, so. But those first two books are really easy to summarize, and this one is… not. It’s partially along the same lines as the second book, in that there’s quite a bit about how Plato’s thought experiment is interpreted by different people and how the various cities made up of these people interact and how they’re all really striving to be their best selves no matter the interpretation. But then there’s also, well, lots of weird god stuff.

Spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t read the first two books!

So this book sees the death of mortal Apollo, who’s been learning important lessons about humans and their significance during the series. But of course, he’s a god, so he’s not actually dead and spends some time doing god stuff and god things and whatever, until he’s called by Hermes to go talk to Zeus and on the way determines that Athena (who set up the Just City experiment in the first place) has gone completely and totally missing, which is not actually possible. So Apollo has to go on, like, a quest to find Athena, who has left him some clues with various people in various times and all of this is moderately interesting but then there’s a whole thing with alien gods and stuff and I’m just going to give this whole plot the side-eye.

Way more interesting to me are the chapters from non-god points of view, talking about the stuff I said above with the Just City and whatnot, but then especially the chapters from the point of view of Crocus, who is a robot Worker with sentience and probably a soul and lots of interesting ideas about all of that. His very straightforward chapters are a lovely contrast to the incredibly confusing Apollo chapters.

Probably no spoilers after this!

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book, largely because of the way it plays off of the previous books and continues its own version of Plato’s Republic with commentary. You definitely would not be able to read this book on its own, and I wouldn’t say you absolutely have to read this if you’ve read the other two books, but if you read and and liked the other two this is a solid entry in the series.

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The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

The Philosopher KingsAfter reading The Just City, I was super excited to see what would happen next to my favorite Plato-embracing humans. If you haven’t read The Just City, let me spoil the very end for you: Plato’s thought experiment, not surprisingly, does not translate well to the real (well, “real”) world, and the city falls apart.

This book starts many years and many cities later, as the former residents of the Just City form their own, presumably better versions of the City elsewhere on the island, or, in the case of Kebes, abscond with a ship and run off to who knows where. The cities left on the island are not playing nice with each other, though, and an early art raid leaves my favorite character from the first novel, Simmea, super duper dead. Of our narrators this time, Apollo is distraught, Maia is pragmatic, and Apollo and Simmea’s daughter, Arete, is nearly an adult and eager to make sense of everything that’s going on.

Apollo is pretty sure that Kebes is the culprit in Simmea’s death and also just generally wants to kill the dude, so he and a bunch of other Remnant City (the… remnants of the original City) residents take the other ship and go out on a “diplomatic” mission to explore the area and maybe perhaps find and kill Kebes. What they find, generally, is the world as it actually was at the time without Athene’s intervention, which depresses them all rather a lot. When they do find Kebes’s contingent, things seem at first pretty darn good for them and for the people they are helping, but life in their cities is certainly not as Plato imagined.

Where the first book focused on the benefits of and problems with the Just City in terms of an actual functioning Just City, this book takes a look at how slight tweaks to the formula create completely different cities in composition and demeanor. And where the first book’s Apollo was trying to figure out the equality of women especially with regards to rape, this second volume has Apollo sort of floundering for a reason to keep existing as a mortal after the death of his favorite mortal companion. It’s not a terribly different novel, but it covers enough new ground to make things interesting.

Well, most of the novel is not terribly different, except for the ending, which is deus ex to the extreme in a story that had previously kept a slow, constant pace of developing and solving problems. I get that what happens probably eventually had to happen, and that it would, probably, happen just that quickly, but it’s jarring nonetheless and also it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But hey, gods and their whims, right?

I was sure that this must be a two-book series with the way this one ended, but apparently there is another book coming, and I am totally in for reading it if only to figure out what happened at the end of this one! At the very least, the new setting will be absolutely fascinating…

Recommendation: Read The Just City first, of course, and if you like that you’ll definitely want to continue on to this one.

Rating: 8/10

The Just City, by Jo Walton

The Just CitySo, let’s be real. I barely skimmed the description of this book before reading it because a) Jo Walton and b) Greek gods. Sold. I knew there was something about Plato going on, but other than that I was Jon Snow.

You may want to know a bit more before going in.

So, okay, if you’re like me and you’ve only read My Real Children, the first thing is that this book is almost nothing like that one except for the wonderfulness of Walton’s writing. But oh, how wonderful it is.

The conceit of the book is that the goddess Athena has heard enough prayers across time wishing for a chance to live in the Just City of Plato’s Republic that she’s like, you know what, let’s do it. She collects those who prayed, recruits the willing, commandeers Atlantis, and starts building a city. She and the “masters” of the city then collect a bunch of ten-year-old (or “ten-year-old”, as these things go) slaves to educate in the style of the Just City. The story of the city is told from three points of view: that of Maia, a master of the city; of Simmea, one of the children of the city; and of Apollo/Pytheas, who has made himself mortal to experience the city as one of the slave children as well, for a reason I will talk about more in two paragraphs.

It is very interesting to see how these three narrators interact with the city; they all love the city for different reasons but recognize its faults, and because they’re all wildly overeducated they talk about it a lot. And then they talk about it even more when Socrates shows up. My god, that man asks a lot of questions. Really, once he shows up the whole book is just a giant Socratic dialogue about the role of the Just City and what Plato might have thought about this literal embodiment of it. It is fascinating to the point where I want to want to read The Republic but I know that’s never going to happen. At least I know this much about it!

I like that part of the story, the pretty much whole part of the story, but there’s another thread running through the book that you may want to be aware of, which is practically a discourse on rape. Right at the beginning, we learn that Apollo has no idea why Daphne would rather turn into a tree than have sex with him, and his lady god siblings are like, you are so stupid. He literally does not understand that women have, like, minds and bodies of their own, and so he takes on this life in the Just City to learn to comprehend this basic fact of existence. (The gods not knowing everything is another thread in this story.) Later in the book there is a rape scene between two regular humans with much the same thought process, and then even later there is more or less sanctioned rape as the children are paired off by the masters at procreation festivals. There is a lot of sex going on, and it is all quite problematic, and because this is a book with Socrates in it there is a lot of discussion of problematic sex, is what I’m saying.

So, to sum up: this is a super thinky book with lots of thinky things to think about. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I will be reading its sequel as soon as it comes out, and then like everything else Jo Walton has ever written because if she can make me like Socratic dialogue she can do anything.

Recommendation: For wildly overeducated people, lovers of Plato, and people who just like to think a lot.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: ODY-C and The Bunker

Before we dive in to this week’s comics, I want to remind everyone that tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day! I have like a million things I am doing this weekend but one of the most important to me (like, seriously, I took off work for this) is stopping into my local comic shop and grabbing my allotted free comics as well as whatever they have that I want to pay for. If you have a comic shop within driving distance of you (which you can check at that link above), you have no excuse not to stop in and grab 100 percent absolutely free comics!

Okay, back to the writeups!

ODY-C, #1, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward
ODY-C #1I bought this issue the day it came out, knowing nothing about it other than that Matt Fraction wrote it and that Matt Fraction is awesome. I then read it shortly thereafter, and only realized that I hadn’t talked about it here as I was packing it up to donate to my library.

Why did I forget to talk about it for five months? Well, I had really bought it for my husband, and almost entirely because the first couple of “pages” are this huge, 8-page fold-out with a giant illustration on one side and a four-page timeline and four-page map on the other. Timelines? Maps? They are squarely in Scott’s wheelhouse. But still I wanted to read it first, to save Scott the trouble of reading it if it was bad and because MATT FRACTION come on.

So I did. And it was… weird. See, ODY-C is a complete rewrite of Greek mythology, specifically The Odyssey (see what they did there?), wherein all the characters are either ladies or an intersex… sex… created for the purposes of procreation. That timeline thing explains it all, I think, if it doesn’t break your brain, which it totally did mine.

As a person with limited knowledge of Greek mythology, I found myself knowing just enough to know that things were oddly different, not enough to know why, and too much to be able to just read the book as a new story and let it do its own thing. I also really couldn’t get past the voice of the story, in which people say things like, “There should come thunderous punishment from we Olympians for their insolence and hubris.” No. My brain is broken already, I cannot read formal language.

But it’s a super pretty book, with wild technicolor illustrations and amazing, intricate detail. If you’re the kind of person who wants to read space-based, gender-swapped version of The Odyssey, I can’t imagine you’ll do anything but love this.

The Bunker, Vol. 1, by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari
The Bunker, Vol. 1This, on the other hand, this book was solidly in my wheelhouse. Five college kids go off into the woods to bury a time capsule, because nerds, but when they find the perfect spot it turns out it’s already taken, by a giant bunker. Even weirder, this bunker has their names on it. Even even weirder, this bunker contains letters to themselves, from their future selves. AWESOME.

It seems that most of the letter writers are doing this as a way to stop the terrible horrible things that are going to happen from happening, but the letter we read first wants none of that. This letter wants its reader to make sure everything happens just as it’s supposed to, which may be a little hard with all of his friends working against him.

As we go through the story we get bits and pieces of the letters, with flashes forward to the horrors of the future world and some flashes back that show how all these guys became friends in the first place and how that’s all about to fall apart. The bunker also has a surprise guest who is going to make things very intriguing in the future.

I love the art in this book as well, which is this interesting sketchy pencilly style that fits with the book’s themes of despair and also the malleability of this timeline. I am super excited to see where this comic goes!

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan

I’ve been in sort of a reading funk for the past week or so — I have a lot of books that I could read, but none of them are calling out to me. So I, of course, sent an appeal to the Twitterverse for something I should read. The Lightning Thief was the first response that piqued my interest, but of course with the movie out and all there was no chance I was going to get the book from the library any time soon. But then Fate smiled down upon me, and while I was at class that evening, I found a friend who had just finished his library copy of the book and even had it sitting in his car! I promptly borrowed the book and finished it in two sittings (a girl’s gotta sleep!).

So that’s a good story, but I’m afraid it might be better than the story behind The Lightning Thief. When I was in the middle of the book, Scott asked what the book was about, and I responded immediately with “It’s like Harry Potter, but not as good.” This could be my old-person self talking, because goodness knows that the story in A Wrinkle in Time is kind of lacking but I love it anyway, but I just really wasn’t sold on the book.

The premise is that Percy Jackson, our hero, is actually a hero — like in the Greek myths and all that. We meet him before he knows this, when he’s just an ADHD kid getting in trouble at school all the time because he makes weird things happen without trying. After some more backstory, a monster/car chase, and the death of Percy’s mother, Percy ends up at a summer camp for “half-bloods” (illegitimate god-spawn) where no one wants to tell him a damn thing about anything.

Ahem. That part really bothered me. I mean, I get it that you don’t want to give away the whole book right away by explaining everything, and that it’s fun to do the exposition later, but seriously, every time Percy asks someone a question, they’re all like, “What? You know the answer. Don’t tell me you don’t, that doesn’t make sense,” even the people who know that Percy doesn’t know anything. Annoying.

Anyway, then stuff happens and Percy ends up on a quest to return a lightning bolt and… ugh. No, this part’s bad, too. Well, quest: good. Returning lightning bolt: good. But! At the beginning of the quest, there’s all this worry about how Percy can’t even take a cell phone with him because the gods can track that (what?), but then he and his quest-mates meet up with, like, a millionty-twelve gods anyway. Also: they are gods. I think if they care about what Percy is doing they can find him.

Ahem. Aside from all of that, the concept of the book is decent, and if you want to learn more about the Greek myths, this book is the way to go. Lots of good information in here!

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2005, A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
medieval bookworm
Age 30+ … A Lifetime of Books
Maw Books Blog
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Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.