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.

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

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenThis was kind of a sneak-attack book for me — I had heard good things about Jo Walton when her book Among Others came out but never got around to reading it, and then suddenly this book was out and I was like, sure, maybe I’ll read that one, and then I had a gap between books I needed to read for one book club or another and this book sitting on my desk and it was obviously fate.

Which is an appropriate sentiment for this book, actually. The story starts off with a woman named Patricia stuck going senile in some old-folks home in England with only her family’s visits to break the monotony of the building. Except that it’s not just one family that visits her, but two. When one set of children visits her, she can’t imagine how she ever thought there were others, but in between visits she remembers both sets, and her respective lives with them, equally well. She starts to wonder — why does she remember two separate lives? Where did her life split apart?

And then she remembers.

The book from there cuts back and forth between Patricia’s dual lives as Pat and Trish (and other name variations, too). In one life, she experiences a happy and fulfilling personal life but lives in a horror show of a world; in the other the world is a progressive wonderland but her personal life is a shambles.

Both lives are equally compelling, though, and I was just as happy about the small gains in Trish’s life as I was about the great gains in Pat’s, and even once I figured out that there wasn’t terribly much plot to the book I absolutely had to know what happened to both of them. Walton’s worldbuilding is amazing as well, especially for worlds that are basically the one I live in. Brief mentions of current events here and famous people there let me know that neither of these worlds is exactly like my own, which I thought was a smart touch. And it’s interesting what really struck me about the different worlds — moon bases are awesome, sure, but in one world there isn’t wifi in Patricia’s nursing home! How can she possibly survive?

And oh my goodness, Walton knows how to stick a landing, with both of Patricia’s lives slowly but surely unraveling into her state at the beginning of the book in only a slightly less terrible way than in, say Still Alice and then a Big Life Question asked and [spoiler not spoiler] totally not answered except that I know what I think the answer is and I don’t like it on an emotional level but on a rational level it makes perfect sense but hmmph. It’s a book that’s kept me thinking about it for weeks now.

Jo Walton, where have you been all my life?

Recommendation: For fans of alternate universes and life-encompassing stories, and those who wanted to like Life After Life but thought it was too complicated.

Rating: 10/10