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book review

Jo Walton’s The Just City has three narrators, one of which is the god Apollo, who is tries to understand morality.

So, here is why I am struggling to review this book.

Reviews are dual-pronged things. First, there's the critical engagement with the book, the relationship one develops with the text as one figures out what is happening and why and how well the author is pulling it off – does the plot make sense? Is it a pleasurable or frustrating reading experience? Is the book well-written?

In this sense, I had no trouble engaging with Hugo and Nebula Awards-winner Jo Walton's latest offering, The Just City, the first novel in what is to be a trilogy. It is an extraordinarily ambitious achievement, tackling the concept of an ideal city in a way that is both grand and intimate. The titular city is a construct, a kind of philosophical petri dish engineered by the goddess Athene, to make the thought experiment found in Plato's Republic a reality, something that "has been discussed for centuries, but … never actually been tried."

The attempt is massive, wondrous and disastrous. The city is planned and constructed – not just built, but created, curated, imbued with character and content and not simply architecture. It is populated by a group of "masters," great thinkers and philosophers and intellectual refugees from different historical periods. The primary inhabitants of the city, however, are children: orphans, outcasts and slaves similarly plucked from different times and places, and provided the opportunity to grow and learn in the best possible environment – to reach the pinnacle of their human potential. Within this physically and intellectually walled city, questions of free will come to the fore. This is speculative philosophy as much as it is speculative fiction, and despite the robots and time travel it is not the least bit escapist.

The Just City is narrated from three primary perspectives: the god Apollo, who becomes the human child Pytheas; Simmea, one of the 10,000 or so children lifted from history to live in the city and become their best selves; and Maia, plucked from 19th-century Yorkshire to serve as one of a few hundred "masters" tasked with planning and building the city for the children to live in.

Maia's sections, especially in the novel's first act, drag in places, the nimbleness of Walton's sentences occasionally get bogged down by the tiresome minutiae of making the city work. In contrast, Simmea and her relationship with Apollo/Pytheas is a delight, him struggling to learn lessons possible only through mortality and her embracing the city's potential with a profound intellectual hunger. The two share a vulnerability that is often heart-wrenching.

The book really hits its stride, and becomes something extraordinary, when Sokrates shows up. He arrives in the city several years into the experiment and promptly starts wrecking the joint. He's unquestionably the novel's most memorable character, iconoclastic and stubborn and wickedly funny, the perpetual wrench in the gears. The Just City is not the book that it is without him, and the city is never the same once he arrives; he brings unpredictability to a place that's been exquisitely planned, and it is a joy to witness.

And yet, although I was ready to fall in love with The Just City, there's a second aspect of book reviewing that one must contend with: how to recommend a book. On one hand there's much to admire, from the subtlety and compassion with which it tackles an incredibly complex series of thought experiments, to its sharp – and smart – sense of humour. But inside these pages lurks a monster: the spectre of sexual violence. The ways in which the novel explores questions of free will and choice, and the way Walton unflinchingly deconstructs ancient Greek narratives and mythological structures, mean that questions about (and deep violations of) consent are often asked. Some of these explorations lead to extremely dark places, and some readers may not want, or be able, to follow. Walton handles the horror deftly but not delicately, with both steely-eyed intensity and precision, but it's a technique that allows no one any mercy, character or reader.

The Just City is a glorious example of one of the primary purposes of speculative fiction: serving as a map to the potentials and miseries of a possible world. But it is also a map that should be scrawled with the words, "here be dragons."

Natalie Zina Walschots splits her time between Toronto and Montreal.

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