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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Just City by Jo Walton (Thessaly #1)

The Just City (Thessaly, #1)The Just City by Jo Walton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jacket Blurb: "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.

Read for May book group.

I have to admit, this was quite a bit different from what I usually read. It's a unique blending of historical, philosophy, romance, and science fiction, and I'm honestly not quite sure what to say about it.

Premise of the book is Pallas Athene builds an experimental city based on the principles of Plato's Republic and other works. She gathers to her anyone who has ever prayed to her for a Just City which results in a conglomeration of people - male and female - from across time. With help from Athene, these individuals, known henceforth as "Masters" set up the foundations for the Just City.

Once the City is ready, the Masters - again with Athene's assistance - go back through time and purchase an immense amount of 10 year old children who were slated to becomes slaves, thus saving the children from terrible fates and allowing them to become their best under this model city.

Apollo, curious about his sisters experiment, arranges to become part of the Just City so he too may learn from the humans. He does this by hiding his identity and his powers, thus growing up "human". He successfully hides his identity from almost everyone.

And then Pallas Athene brings in Sokrates (not a misspelling) to stir the proverbial pot. What happens next is...well, bizarre and fascinating.

I read through this in a couple of days. It's a fast and - I thought - engaging read. Jo Walton manages to cram so much into such a few short pages that in some ways it's a bit overwhelming. Should I be focusing on the morality? free will? freedom of choice? The status of women? Who is worthy of a soul? What defines a soul? What does it means to be human? Is the soul comprised of one metal or a combination of four? Is the Just City just?

There are layers and nuances to this that could be picked apart and dissected much like our fictional Sokrates challenges the status quo and mind-set of his student-friends. Everyone wants the Just City to work, but at the same time, consciously and subconsciously, they all work against the system. The Master's are hoping to hand over control of the Just City to the Philospher Kings, but in reality, can they? Does Plato's system even work or is it a failed dream?

I could go on, asking questions and coming back and asking them in a different way. This book will make you think, if nothing else, and that's why I recommend it.

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