The Philosopher Kings

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Series: Thessaly #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: June 2015
ISBN: 0-7653-3267-1
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 345

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Despite the cliffhanger at the end of The Just City, The Philosopher Kings doesn't pick up immediately afterwards. Argh. It's a great book (as I'm about to describe), but I really wanted to also read that book that happened in between. Still, this is the conclusion to the problem posed in The Just City, and I wouldn't recommend reading this book on its own (or, really, either book separate from the other).

Despite the unwanted gap, and another change at the very start of the book that I won't state explicitly since it's a spoiler but that made me quite unhappy (despite driving the rest of the plot), this is much closer to the book that I wanted to read. Walton moves away from the SF philosophical question that drove much of the second half of The Just City in favor of going back to arguments about human organization, the nature of justice, choices between different modes of life, and the nature of human relationships. Those were the best parts of The Just City, and they're elaborated here in some fascinating ways that wouldn't have been possible in the hothouse environment of the previous book.

I also thought Apollo was more interesting here than in the previous book. Still somewhat infuriating, particularly near the start, but I felt like I got more of what Walton was trying for, and more of what Apollo was attempting to use this existence to understand. And, once the plot hits its stride towards the center of the book, I started really liking Apollo. I guess it took a book and a half for him to mature enough to be interesting.

A new viewpoint character, Arete, gets most of the chapters in this book, rather than following the pattern of The Just City and changing viewpoint characters every chapter. Her identity is a spoiler for The Just City, so I'll leave that a mystery. She's a bit more matter-of-fact and observational than Maia, but she does that thing that I love in Walton's characters: take an unexpected, fantastic situation, analyze and experiment with it, and draw some practical and matter-of-fact conclusions about how to proceed.

I think that's the best way to describe this entire series: take a bunch of honest, thoughtful, and mostly good people, put them into a fantastic situation (at first Plato's Republic, a thought experiment made real, and then some additional fantasy complexities), and watch them tackle that situation like reasonable human beings. There is some drama, of course, because humans will disagree and will occasionally do awful, or just hurtful, things to each other. But the characters try to defuse the drama, try to be thoughtful and fair and just in their approach, and encourage change, improvement, and forgiveness in others. I don't like everyone in these books, but the vast majority of them are good people (and the few who aren't stand out), and there's something satisfying in reading about them. And the philosophical debate is wonderful throughout this book (which I'm not saying entirely because the characters have a similar reaction to a newly-introduced philosophical system as I did as a reader, although that certainly helps).

I'm not saying much about the plot since so much would spoil the previous book. But Walton adds some well-done complexities and complications, and while I was dubious about them at the start of the book, I definitely came around. I enjoyed watching the characters reinvent some typical human problems, but still come at them from a unique and thoughtful angle and come up with some novel solutions. And the ending took me entirely by surprise, in a very good way. It's better than the best ending I could have imagined for the book, providing some much-needed closure and quite a bit of explanation. (And, thankfully, does not end on another cliffhanger; in fact, I'm quite curious to see what the third book is going to tackle.)

Recommended, including the previous book, despite the bits that irritated me.

Followed by Necessity.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-11-15

Last modified and spun 2016-11-16