Jo Walton’s The Just City is a novel that rides its philosophical premise to its conclusion and no further. As an experiment, the ancient Greek goddess Athena takes everyone who has prayed to her for the existence Plato’s “just city”, as detailed in the Republic, and places them on an island. She gives these philosophical idealists from all eras ten thousand ten year old slave children to mould into philosopher kings. Apollo, confused by Daphne’s refusal of him, decides to become a human incarnate, and so he too ends up on the island at Athena’s suggestion.
The story is told by three first person in the past tense – Apollo, going by the name Pytheas, one of the children, renamed Simmea, and one of the teachers, a 19th century pastor’s daughter renamed Maia. The voices are distinctive and engaging, the characters well defined with traceable motivations. When well known philosophers are introduced, they are done so with the flourish of an expert historical fiction writer. The interpersonal conflicts are tense, and each narrator’s emotional responses provoke similar feelings in the reader. Tonally, it has echoes of similar YA fiction, like Divergent with more effort. This is perhaps because of Walton’s background in science fiction and fantasy, genres which complement the mythic stage set in The Just City.
Clearly, it is a difficult plot to sum up. The story is drenched in Greek myth, renaissance art and multicultural philosophy. Walton is well read, and her own interest in the subjects at hand shines through the characters’ dialogues. There is a buoyancy to the ideas at work in The Just City, and Walton’s clean and explanatory style makes the novel an easy read.
Yet the author’s interest in the philosophical subjects ultimately interferes with the characterisation and the narrative of The Just City. Occasionally Simmea or one of her young counterparts will voice an opinion that seems at odds with their personality and upbringing, though it is a minor slip that can be passed off as devil’s advocacy.
The ending, on the other hand, is both philosophically sound and narratively frustrating – such a moment could be used to further highlight the distinctions between the abstract and the physical, the heart behind the head, for the intellectual debate to finally spill into the all-out conflict it has masked. Instead, the novel just stops, characters and readers left dangling in the emotional fallout of idealism. Given how well Walton has balanced the two faucets of the novel up until this point, the final strokes feel like a well executed manifesto ripping through the last pages of an otherwise enjoyable book.
Despite the anticlimactic conclusion, The Just City is thought provoking, intelligent and informative; an ideal introduction for young adults to the philosophical ideas at work and the thinkers it cites.
The Just City will be available from the 13th of January, 2015. It is a Tor Book published by Tom Doherty Associates.