The Just City by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’d had this book on my To Read list since 2014 when I read about it on Boing-Boing. I don’t remember what they said about, but something piqued my interest. Of course, when you have a To Read list that’s hovering near 400 books, it takes a while to get to things. In his case, it was a good thing because eventually I nabbed it for free from the Tor eBook club. If you’re into SFF, I think it’s one the best deals you can get in exchanged to be emailed at from a company. So what about the book?
This is a book that a decade ago I would have hated. There isn’t a natural progression through plot and there isn’t a true climax until the last 10-15 pages of the book. The book ends as abruptly as early Neal Stephenson books from the last 90s/early 2000s. But I’ve grown to enjoy books where the journey is the point (as long as it’s a good journey, that is!). And ever since I first came across the idea of the Platonic Republic as background when I read it in middle school via … (a book that’s on my Read list here, but I can’t remember right now – may come back and fix the review), I’ve been fascinated with the idea. The Just City upon which this book is named is an attempt to create Plato’s Republic and the book is about where it works and doesn’t work in the real world.
Given what the book was about, I found the first chapter a bit confusing at first. But, it eventually becomes clear that in this book, the Greek gods are real. That also got me interested because, while I’m not a Greek Geek (I couldn’t tell you the proper versions of many of the stories), I do enjoy them and what they said about the Greeks as well as how universal they were that the Romans could adopt them as their own (probably with some mods).
If I may be permitted to spoil the second chapter just to continue talking about the setup, essentially, a couple of the Greek gods (I’ll leave the identities to the reader) decide to set up The Just City as an experiment and pull in folks from throughout history to be the adults to guide the first generation of children through the experiment. Those children would be the first generation of potential philosopher-kings. Wisely, Ms. Jo Walton gives us three POV characters for this novel: Simmea, Maia, and Pytheas. I’ll keep the last one’s identity a secret as it’s a reveal for the first third-ish of the novel, but Simmea and Maia represent a child in the city and a master of the city, respectively. So we get to see things from the POV of someone trying to make things work and someone who’s being raised in that system. It’s also quite important that 2/3 of the POVs are female because a long-running theme of the book is the injustice of the way woman have been treated throughout a VERY long portion of human history. Also, of the books I’ve come across (mostly SFF with some in other categories) it’s got one of the more realistic birth and post-birth sets of stories, including a character who suffers from postpartum depression.
Overall, a great rumination on what it would be like to set up a Platonic Republic and fun for anyone who’s into philosophy, theoretical government frameworks, Socratic dialogs, and a story in which the journey of the characters is more important than an overarching plot. (Although there may be an overarching plot present across the trilogy) For those who care: more or less no profanity. Some frank discussion of sex, but no real erotic passages or overly descriptive scenarios. Other than the trigger warning coming below, I think it’s probably fine to hand to any precocious kid who already understands the mechanics of sex.
Trigger warning: a few non-consensual sex encounters. One is an out-and-out rape. The others are mostly situations where consent is given for sex itself, but things go off the rails for one of the partners. For those it’s mostly it’s about how the person feels afterwards and less about being descriptive of the acts. On the positive side, for one character, their entire arc is about coming to an understanding about why consent is so important.
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