Fiction Reviews

The Philosopher Kings

(2015) Jo Walton, Corsair, £8.99, pbk, 348pp, ISBN 978-1-472-15079-0


This is a direct sequel to Waltonís highly acclaimed preceding novel, The Just City in which the human-incarnate God Apollo was involved in an experiment to see if Platoís Republic ideas could really work as a utopian social blue-print.

Characters were drawn out of time and put in the Just City, though it is eventually destined to perish in a fiery volcanic destruction, so setting up the Atlantis myth as defined by Plato.

By the sequel, set some 15 years into the great experiment, the society has collapsed into feuding factions, and five different rival city states have been established. Each has taken to stealing future-anachronistic artefacts from the others in the on-rolling art-wars.

During one art-war conflict, Apollo, in the body of a man called Pythea, discovers that his wife Simmea, has been murdered in cold blood by an unknown assailant. She was a central character of the first novel, so her death coming in chapter one is quite an astonishing premise.

Apollo, stripped of his divine powers unless he lets his human form die, seeks vengeance. He suspects the killer is Kebes, the main protagonist of the first book, especially as Pythea / Apollo has found diary entries from his now dead wife in which she describes being raped by Kebes. A second rapist also appears and each will be subject to very contrasting just or ignoble fates depending on your philosophical leanings and the emotional impact of their offences.

Much of the fun of the first book was centred on Socrates seeing The Republic brought to life but he and other key-note philosophers are largely absent this time, Socrates having been turned into a gadfly rather than condemned to hemlock poisoning.

Pythea leads his family on a sea voyage in pursuit of Kebes, who has sailed off to a remote island. As the heroic crew compare themselves to the Argonauts as they travel, the philosophical debate on the nature of justice and folly of emotion-fuelled revenge intensifies. Apollo becomes more consumed by his rage, while his children begin to develop both god-like powers and wisdom. To compound things more, the remote communities have introduced Christianity, a thousand years before Christís birth.

A religion with a concept of forgiveness at its core is therefore on a direct collision course with the myth of just, apt divine vengeance and a Socratic teaching of a need to understand the heart of justice before acting on it.

The novel is more action driven, and less talky than its predecessor, with a more limited thematic aim, but there is still the collision between divine and human motives for vengeance. Apollo could simply become divine and use his powers, but can he cope with such powerful feelings in a human form, as his own children become more God-like than he is, will he remain more mortal by choice?

Disappointing in its total change of direction to the preceding novel and lacking the fascinating philosophical education offered through the first book, this is however an interesting look at gods in human form, written in the style of Game of Thrones, from multiple points of view including that of Apollo.

There is a lot of exposition and recapping involved and much of the fun comes from the time-distorting acronyms, with cities built overnight by a robot rewarded with copies of the work of Thomas Aquinas to read.

The story shifts from fantasy to science fiction as the whole mess is put right rather too easily by the older Greek gods, but a forthcoming third book in the series promises that this is not yet the end.

Arthur Chappell

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