This is the final book in this remarkable trilogy. Given the scope and ambition of these books – to explore Plato’s thoughts on what makes an ideal society in his book, The Republic – would Walton manage to conclude it satisfactorily?
The Cities, founded on the precepts laid down by in Plato’s The Republic by Pallas Athena, are flourishing. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Pytheas dies as a human, returning immediately as Apollo in his full glory. And there’s suddenly a ship approaching, wanting to make contact…
My first firm recommendation is DO NOT pick this one up without first at least reading one of the first two books, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, both of which I think you could read first without floundering too much. But not this one. For starters, there is a lot more discussion of what has gone before – as well as infilling the time-lag between The Philosopher Kings and Necessity and glancing allusions to events that mean a whole lot more if you know the now considerable backstory to all the main characters.
Walton mentions in the Acknowledgements that this is the hardest book she has written to date and I think it starts a little uncertainly – which is unusual, as her writing style normally has an easy fluidity I love. However once the narrative gets going, particularly after Sokrates bounces into the story the momentum picks up. There is a different feel to this one, though. For starters, there is a lot more discussion of the ideas thrown up by Plato – what makes a perfect society and how should people strive towards excellence; what makes gods so different from humans; how can society give justice to people, while recognising their different contributions to their community; what does equality for all mean. There is a particularly interesting discussion regarding slavery – Plato was very much against it, which these days may be regarded as a given, but when you consider that both Greek and Roman society only worked so smoothly because of the huge underclass of enslaved labour, this was regarded as a revolutionary, impractical and frankly dangerous idea at the time. Sadly, as I read the arguments reprised in the book, I was aware these now have a new relevance as this ugly form of exploitation seems to be resurfacing with renewed vigour in the 21st century.
I was intrigued to see how the huge plot twist at the end of The Philosopher Kings would work out in this book. I think the new environment works, along with visitors who decide to also adopt Plato’s precepts. I’m less convinced about the first contact with the approaching ship after the huge build-up in the first half of the book. But that isn’t a dealbreaker – after all, this isn’t a book about a clash of cultures, it’s a book exploring whether the ideals of an ancient philosopher have anything to say to us now.
As for the ending… I finished the book feeling enormously moved and excited. I can’t recall the last time I felt like that over any book. And all through the year, since reading The Just City I’ve found this series has stolen into my head and taken up thinking space, often when I should have been considering other things. That doesn’t happen all that often. It is the glory of reading – where marks on a page can transform, terrify or anger you. Or, in this case, have me pondering about why we are here, what is our purpose and what should we be striving for.