Jo Walton’s The Just City Review Round-Up

Note: This is part of a series of Review Round-Ups investigating potential Hugo/Nebula Best Novel contenders for 2016. I use the information I gather to help my Hugo and Nebula predictions. See my Review Round-Up Strategy for 2015 post for more info.

What if Athena and Apollo tried to set up Plato’s Republic? And what if they travelled through time and body-snatched Plato’s greatest supporters to run the city as masters? Throw in 10,000 young kids that need to be raised the perfect way . . .

With that bold speculation, Jo Walton’s The Just City is off to the races. Walton shows us as a wide assortment of characters, both historical (i.e. Cicero, Socrates, etc.) and imagined, who try to put Plato’s grand dream into reality. Add in some robots—an ideal city needs servants, after all—and you’ve got a broad canvas for Walton to write about justice, societies, childhood, and what a perfect city might be. For anyone who has read The Republic, or been forced to read excerpts in class, this is a fun variation on Plato’s timeless vision.

As you might expect, everything begins to go wrong. In fact, the book can get quite violent at times, particularly around the issues of sexual assault. Walton is exploring the ways even the most ideal city crumbles under the weight of human imperfection. The Just City ends abruptly, but Walton has already published the sequel The Philosopher Kings in 2015, and there’s a concluding volume to the trilogy in the offing.

My initial thoughts about The Just City were that it was “too Greek” for the Hugos or the Nebulas, but I’ve tempered that position. This is more of a thought experiment than a traditional science fiction or fantasy novel, but audiences seem to be embracing Walton’s writing. Since sweeping the 2012 Hugo and Nebulas with her extraordinarily well-liked Among Others, Walton’s profile as an author has greatly increased. If not for the Puppy campaigns, she likely would have won a second Hugo in 2015 for her book of criticism What Makes This Book So Great. Her last novel My Real Children did well on the 2015 awards circuit, winning the Tiptree and scoring a World Fantasy nomination. If you exclude the Puppy nominations from 2015, My Real Children placed 8th in the 2015 Hugos, and I think The Just City is the more appealing of those two books.

I still don’t think it’s likely Walton will grab a Nebula or Hugo nomination in 2016, but I wouldn’t be if surprised she did. The Nebula is more open this year, since the Hugos are going to be an absolute mess in 2016 with huge turnout, voting campaigns, and other assorted kerfuffles. Walton’s book is posting middle-of-the-road numbers on Goodreads and Amazon. As of mid-October, she had around 2000 Goodreads ratings with a score of 3.78 and 51 Amazon ratings with a score of 4.00. What hurts The Just City is that, if you haven’t read Plato, it’s not very accessible. I don’t want to underestimate the SFF audience, though. I think a lot of those readers do know their Plato, and, if you do, this is an easy novel to like.

Ultimately, I have this down in the 8-12 range for the Hugos and Nebulas: a fighting chance, but by no means a sure thing. On to other opinions about the book:

The Just City
Published January 13, 2015.

About the Book:
Jo Walton’s Web Page
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
NPR
Los Angeles Review of Books

The mainstream venues were a little tempered. Publisher’s Weekly noted the sexual violence of the novel, and Kirkus was somewhat cutting with their claim “This is novel as study guide: Mary Renault meets undergraduate Philosophy 101.” The bigger mainstream venues (NY Times, etc.) ignored the book, as you’d expect for a pretty niche SFF title.

SFF Reviews:
Tor / Second Tor Review
Boing Boing
Barnes and Noble SF Blog
Strange Horizons (interview with Walton, not a review)
Skiffy and Fanty
SF Signal
SFF World

That’s broad coverage, and solid but not glowing reviews for The Just City. A lot of the reviewers identified it as idea-driven rather than character or plot-driven; words like “interesting” or “eclectic” were more often applied than “must-read.” Still, it was widely discussed, and that helps drive readers—and possible fans—to the book.

WordPress Reviews:
Violin in a Void (8 out of 10)
Intellectus Speculativus
Robin’s Books
Antonio Urias
Far Beyond Reality
Bibliotropic (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (5 out of 5)
The Dinglehopper
Mermaid Vision Books

A wide range of reactions and opinions. I think my fellow WordPress bloggers found the book interesting to argue with—and against—rather than a book they loved, although some certainly thought highly of it. Others disliked the book. I’m not surprised to see reviews polarized: you either willingly embraced the “though experiment” idea of the book or you didn’t.

My Take: I liked The Just City a great deal. I’m the core audience for this novel: I took three years of Greek in college as well as multiple philosophy courses. I thought Walton did an excellent job of throwing Plato’s ideas against the wall. It was good fun to see the historical and mythological figures interact. If you like the idea of seeing Socrates talk to Apollo and then a robot, this is the book for you. The Just City gives you a great space to think about Plato in a new light, and it’s the kind of novel that makes you want to pull The Republic off your shelf again. Now, we do have to give Plato at least some of the credit, and that’s what keeps The Just City from being truly great: it’s a novel about Plato rather than a novel standing entirely on it’s own merits. 8.5 out of 10.

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3 responses to “Jo Walton’s The Just City Review Round-Up”

  1. Standback says :

    I haven’t read a word of Plato, and I absolutely loved this book.
    It’s fresh, unusual, and there’s more depth and ambivalence to it than seems at first flush.

    For example, it’s definitely a thought experiment. But it *also* sets up very specific, detailed rules on how the thought experiment came about – and ultimately, it extrapolates upon those details in classic SF-nal forms, and those details are crucial to the story’s development. So is it “what if somebody actually did Plato’s Republic?” Or is it a story about this particular Athena, this particular Apollo, those specific robots she nicked from that specific point in time? It somehow manages to be both.

    If this makes it onto the ballot, it might do quite well indeed. It’s very accessible, while also being fairly unusual; that’s a good way to grab a whole lot of high-place votes from the niche-ier readers.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      Very interesting to hear—I might be overselling the need to have read Plato to enjoy the book.

      • Standback says :

        I think you might be 🙂
        Th idea of “city based on a philosophical ideal” is pretty straightforward. There are some important details, but they’re made pretty clear in context. I assume somebody familiar with the Republic would also know a lot more about what’s planned and where some things are headed, giving even more of an ominous feel, but understanding Plato’s solutions to certain issues as they come up works A-OK too.

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