The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The Philosopher KingsThe Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clever and detailed, not to mention elegantly written, but ultimately the narrative is constrained by the very strictures it sets out to explore and (I felt) a little lacking in emotional depth, despite being in first person.

I have a pretty high tolerance for musing, thoughtful, character novels which ramble gently without heavy plot, and of course the promise of Socratic dialogue in spades was a huge draw.

However, the book did drag in places even for me; I found myself skimming Maia’s sections but avidly reading Simmea’s and Apollo’s.

What definitively knocked the last star off for me was Sokrates. Any story which includes him as a character is always going to be taking a risk, since he is a phenomenally influential character for whom readers will have high expectations.

Matt Hilliard once said that authors should be careful about writing messianic messages or sermons unless they are themselves Messiahs. A similar comparison springs to mind re authors and philosophers. The didactic rhetoric and Socratic dialogue often fell flat for me, with logical disconnects between arguments. I would also argue that Socratic dialogue isn’t really debate; it’s artificial and constructed to prove the main speaker’s point. Walton seems to have aimed for a halfway point between true rhetoric and group discussion, but didn’t quite nail either in many instances. Sokrates versus Athena carried well (the Final Debate) but not so much Sokrates and Simmea/Apollo.

The novel did offer a robust defense of the Republic which often gets much flack, although in the end it did come down firmly on the side of Plato’s ideas being too unworkable in many cases.

I think its other strong point (I don’t usually say this) is the thoughtful and scintillating examination of feminism in this context, with full nuance and no easy answers.

I would happily recommend to any fans of Jo Walton’s other works, or fans of literary and/or philosophical science fantasy.

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