REVIEW: The mythical figures in ‘Philosopher Kings’ are surprisingly human

jo walton the philosopher kings


The highly-prolific Jo Walton returns with a sequel to The Just City, which I reviewed in January. In The Just City, the goddess Athene gathers philosophers from throughout history who use the ideas from Plato’s Republic (c. 380 BCE) to try to build a perfect city on a remote island in the time before the Trojan War. At the conclusion of The Just City, Athene and Sokrates engage in the Last Debate, causing the city to splinter apart into different groups.

The Philosopher Kings picks up twenty years later. The original Just City is now called the Remnant. Four other cities share the island of Kallisti. All five cities desire to make The Republic a reality, but each has its own vision of utopia. A sixth group, led by the bitter ex-slave Kebes, sailed off in defiance of Athene’s edict against influencing the pre-literate Bronze Age cultures just springing up in the Mediterranean. The Lost City, as Kebes’ band is known, rejects Plato and the entire notion of creating the Republic, and has not been seen since the Last Debate.

The story is told through three narrators. Maia was an 18th-century English classics student brought by Athene to serve as one of “the Masters” of the Just City. After the Last Debate, Maia helps found a new city, but doubts her decision to leave the Remnant. Now in middle age, Maia has the opportunity to see whether the experiment has indeed led to a generation of philosopher kings.

The second narrator, Pythias, is one of “the Children,” all of whom were brought as 10-year-olds to the Just City to be guided by the Masters in the pursuit of excellence. Of all the Children, Pythias most embodies excellence, which is no surprise as he is really the god Apollo incarnated as a mortal, a fact known only to his wife and children.

(Vatican Museums)
Apollo Belvedere (ca. 120-140 CE, Vatican Museums)

One of those children, Arete (literally, “excellence”), is the third narrator. She is part of the generation born to the Children, called “the Young Ones.” At 15, Arete is on the verge of taking her adulthood exam, which will decide what role she’ll play in society. On top of this stress, she must deal with normal adolescent hormones plus the added pressure of living up to her divine parentage.

The five cities on Kallisti initially lived in harmony after the Last Debate. However, conflict arose over the issue of the classical works of art the Masters had taken (with Athene’s time-traveling help) from throughout history. The newer cities wanted their share, but the residents of the Remnant insisted on keeping them. The art raids soon began, at first playfully, but they quickly turned deadly.

The Philosopher Kings begins in the aftermath of an art raid, with a key character from The Just City lying dead. Pythias blames his old rival Kebes and leads an expedition to locate the Lost City. Where The Just City is largely a “book of ideas” that culminates in a philosophical debate, The Philosopher Kings is much more of an adventure tale in the tradition of The Odyssey or the myth of Jason and the Argonauts.

Throughout the voyage, the crew comes upon extremely impoverished villages, which is to be expected in this time period before writing and advanced metallurgy. But other villages show clear signs of advanced technology and ideas. Most startling of all is the evidence of Christianity appearing over a millennium before the birth of Christ.

As with The Just City, the characters here—even Apollo and his semi-divine daughter—are wonderfully human. They have devoted their lives to excellence, but of course fall short. It is in these failures that their true worth reveals itself. For like all utopias, the Just City was doomed to collapse. The real story comes from what its former citizens try to build from the rubble.

About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.

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