(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Castles In The Sand, by The Philosopher Kings (Spotify, YouTube).
What would you do if you had godlike powers, a copy of the complete works of Plato and a time machine? If your answer is that you would try and create a perfect society ruled by Philosopher Kings (as seen in The Republic) then you urgently need to read The Just City, Jo Walton's newest novel. In other case, well, then you might also want to give it a try, for it is quite an interesting and thought-provoking book.
The premise of the novel, as Plato's own ideal city, is quite risky and could have failed in many different ways. However, Walton makes it (mostly) work by focusing on a pertinent and always relevant topic: free will. The Just City is, obviously, an ambiguous utopia and the conflict between individual liberty and what is Good for the society as a whole is central to the plot. That is a question (how much I am willing to give up for the common good) that is at the core of any social contract, and the characters are quite aware of it:
"It's so great that the masters get to pick things for us, things that we're really good at and that suit us," Laodike said, earnestly. "I'd hate to have to choose. And think how limited it is in other places, where people are mostly stuck doing what their parents did whether they want it or not."
One of the things I liked the most in The Just City is how Walton explores this conflict from different perspectives and at every level: gods, mere mortals and even robots, all have to face the problem of accepting the consequences that come from choices and how they affect the other. This is the mystery that is introduced from the very first (beautiful) sentence of the book: why did Daphne turn into a tree? A mystery whose solution might be evident for the reader, but that the characters have to work out for themselves, with Walton managing all the different pieces in an almost perfect way.
Another important topic in The Just City is the distinction between the different kinds of love, as explained by Plato: eros, philia and agape. This distinction is explored, mainly, by means of the relationship between Apollo (in his human form) and Simmea, making the novel also a love story, though a quite unusual one. I didn't expect to care too much for this part of the story, but it is really well developed, making Apollo and Simmea the de facto protagonists of the book.
And this is when my main problem with the novel arises. The story is told in the first person by three different characters, the two mentioned above and a third, Maia, with alternating chapters from each perspective, providing three much needed different points of view: the god (Apollo), the student (Simmea) and the teacher (Maia). My issue is that I found the character of Maia to be of little relevance and only necessary to explain some of the organizational problems of the city as viewed by their designers. Apart from that, there is little interaction of Maia with the other two main protagonists and the little character development that we witness reminded me too much of My Real Children, a novel that didn't catch my interest (you can read my review, in Spanish, here).
Another minor concern is that there is little exploration of philosophical ideas other than the concepts of justice and agape. I understand that the main focus of the book is on the possibility of a practical implementation of the ideal city as imagined by Plato, but, come on, these are philosophers brought by a goddess from all over History; I can't believe that they do not inquiry much more on topics such as the nature of time and space, for instance. And we should not forget that in The Republic Plato introduced the infamous Allegory of the Cave, something that I don't remembering being acknowledged at all in the novel.
All in all, I quite enjoyed the book and it made think a lot on the topics of justice and free will, which I reckon was one of the main purposes of the author. I'd mostly recommend reading it, although I guess the novel will not be up everyone's alley, especially in the case of those looking for action-oriented plots. Only recently did I learn that The Just City is part of a trilogy (with the second installment, The Philosopher Kings, being published later this year). To me, the ending of the novel is satisfactory enough and it certainly stands on its own, but I suppose I'll be reading the next one also to see where Walton takes us this time.