I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Just City (Thessaly #1) by Jo Walton
Published: Tor Books (2015), eARC, 369pg
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, GLBTQ, Historical Fantasy, Sci-fi
"Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent."
Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.
The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.
Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.
Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.
I’ll be honest: my philosophy 101 class was so boring and terrible I’ve mostly forgotten everything about it. The only thing I DO remember is the thing about the caves, and that’s only because it came up in some of my other (non-philosophy) classes. So when I saw that Jo Walton had written a book about a city built based upon Plato’s Republic, I was super worried it’d be dry and boring. Even though I LOVE Jo Walton’s writing! I was still worried, because of the subject matter.
My darling readers, it was not dry or boring and it was WONDERFUL. SO WONDERFUL.
The best thing was the characters. There are three POVs and each one has a completely unique voice. Apollo’s voice is super modern, Maia’s is a little more old fashioned (she’s from the Victorian era) and Simmea’s even more so. But it’s not difficult to read at all! Even the parts stuffed full of philosophical discourse reads more like a conversation between friends (or enemies) than something I had to read for that terrible 101 class.
Books with gods and their worshipers interacting are always interesting to me, especially when the god is doing something unusual. Apollo decided to experience life as a human, and so he incarnates into a human body (Pythias). A lot of his POV is him trying to gain emotional intelligence, as well as figuring out consent, parity between the sexes, and so on.
Simmea is one of his (somewhat inadvertent) worshipers, and she’s also his friend. She’s ALSO the most philosopher king-like character of all of them. She’s drunk the Kool Aid deep, and she’s such a fair and kind person that it ends up working out.
Maia is also a Kool Aid drinker, though she ends up spending most of her time trying to keep the city running. And running the city means keeping lots of secrets– something that comes back to bite Maia (and the other masters) in the butt at the end of the book.
The secondary characters were wonderful, too. Sokrates, Klio, some of the other children: all great! Sokrates was all for smashing the city to dust. I say we let him, because it’s a terrible place.
It’s what happens when you cram a bunch of humans together in one place and don’t let them leave, and THEN try to impose order using a thought experiment written by an old white guy who never married or had children or really knew how humans worked, apparently. It feels very much like reading a book from inside a powder keg, albeit one that only implodes.
Things that were not fun: all the sexual violence. There’s several rape scenes, both off-screen and on. Two the characters are raped; another is a rapist/potentially a rapist. Apollo is the rapist, and his whole quest into humanity happens because he doesn’t understand why Daphne (a nymph) would rather become a tree than sleep with him. Simmea is sexually assaulted on the slave ship (after seeing her mother and other female slaves being raped previously) and then raped by a fellow child1 near the end of the book. Maia is raped by a fellow master.
Because the whole point of the book is to explore consent and volition, the rape scenes fit in with the rest of the story. However, the way the rape scenes were written, how they happened and the reactions of the rapists after the rape were so similar that I’m not sure if they were meant to imply that Simmea’s rapist learned it from Maia’s or if the second rapes was just hammering in the points that were made by the first one. If the former, woah. If the latter: definitely unnecessary because the point was so well made.
A lot of the book made me angry and sad, though. It’s a book about consent and volition and equality, and it talks about all those things by systematically taking them away from almost all of its characters. The characters have to deal with slavery, not having any sexual agency, and being stuck with the patriarchy even though Plato was all “oh totally women can be philosophers.” Woohoo.
The city is built and populated by slaves! Slaves who had their names taken away, their histories denied, their agency forcefully removed. Talking about wanting to leave is forbidden, as is being unhappy or sad about living in the city. Their sexual partners are chosen for them by their masters, their children taken away and if they try to leave they’re beaten until they can’t.
I didn’t even talk about the sentient robots, but they also get screwed over big time, in such a way that they basically take over the plot for the last third of the book.
Another review I read (and can’t find now) said that The Just City is a book that inspires discussion, and it’s totally true. I loved it and I hated parts of it and I want to talk more in depth about this book with y’all! So go out and read it and then come back here and talk to me about it.
Seriously, what did you think of the robots?
Read: January 18-19, 2015
- they’re called children even after they read the age of majority. SUPER CREEPY CHOICE THERE, masters. ↩