Review of The Just City – Book 1 of the Thessaly series by Jo Walton


I must have been good last year – because Santa (in the form of my lovely husband) gave me just what I wanted… BOOKS. And one of those books I especially requested was Jo Walton’s The Just City

Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.
Name: Kallisti
Nickname: The Just City
Population: 10,520 children, 300 philosophers, Sokrates, Athene, An unknown number of robots
Languages: Classical Greek, Latin
Location: Thera (aka Atlantis)
Climate: Mediterranean
Government: Philosophical Monarchy
Religion: Hellenistic Pagan (with onsite gods)
Sports: Wrestling, Running in Armour, Archery
How to get there: Read Plato’s Republic and pray to Athene. Or be a ten-year-old. Or be a god.
How to leave: You can’t.

This is a book driven by an idea of what an ideal society should look like, as proposed in Plato’s Republic – as an thejustcityexperiment, Athene and Apollo decide to put it into practice. Doesn’t sound like a gripping read, does it? And in most hands it wouldn’t be – but it’s written by one of the most exciting, original writers in speculative fiction – the awesome Jo Walton, who turns this supposedly perfect notion into a thoroughly engrossing book.

Told in multiple viewpoint, including two of the children who are brought to the city as ten-year-olds, having been bought as slaves, in addition to one of the philosophers who prayed for freedom from her limited life as a Victorian woman, this could have been an almighty mess. Instead, it’s an intriguing story ringing with originality as it examines the notion of running humanity along the lines of a philosophical monarchy.

Apart from anything else, a serious look at another form of government is timely, with multi-global companies currently running the planet into ecological ruination, despite hand-wringing and pointless target-setting by concerned nations. Not that I think we’ll be lining up to replicate this particular model…

While the founders are very committed to give it their best shot, there are some inherent weaknesses in the system. Who will do all the hard labour necessary to keep everyone fed and clothed? In this Just City, it is unthinkable to use slave labour, even though it is still common during this time in other parts of Greece. But Athene has had the option of combing through the rest of human time to find help with the chores, so has found a solution to this problem. But once Sokrates is transported to Kallisti, he starts to question the use of the robots – as well as other aspects of the society, such as the abolition of the traditional family unit. With dramatic results…

I enjoyed all the characters, but young Simmea is my favourite, closely followed by Sokrates. They leap off the page as they strive to be the best they can be, in keeping with the precept of the Just City. I stayed up waay too late to find out what happens – and I wasn’t disappointed. It will leave you with all sorts of ideas and thoughts you didn’t have before, unless you were privileged enough to have a classical education. So one of my New Year’s resolutions will be to get hold of the sequel, The Philosopher Kings. And if you read nothing else this year, or the next, get hold of this and give it a go. I’ll freely admit it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Walton’s writing is so accomplished and accessible, I’m betting you’ll find it a deal more easy to read that you might think.

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