Reading the setup of The Just City can itself floor you. That’s how big Jo Walton, a writer already known for ambitious fantasy storytelling, is going with this particular novel, something she says she’s imagined writing since her teenage years. There’s time travel, Greek gods, ancient philosophers, robots from the far future and Atlantis. That such a story was conceived is impressive. That Walton actually delivers on its promise is brilliant.
Dreaming of a great experiment, the goddess Pallas Athene pulls children, teachers and thinkers from throughout history and places them in the distant past on the island of Atlantis, in an attempt to make Plato’s Republic a reality. Among them is Simmea, a bright girl from ancient Egypt who sees the city as a place to learn and grow, and Maia, a woman from Victorian England who dreamt of something more than her limited life. Apollo, Athene’s brother, is also there, but in the form of a mortal child who’s eager to see what human beings can teach him. As the city grows and the children age, the philosopher Sokrates arrives and, in true Socratic fashion, begins to question everything this “just city” has become.
What follows is a sweeping novel of ideas, examined through characters united by their ambition to be more, but divided by their methods. Through her character—all refreshingly detailed in their humanity despite their rather fantastical surroundings—Walton explores questions of love, justice, what it means to have a consciousness, what it means to be a god and what good an experiment is even if it’s doomed to be forgotten. Woven through those themes are even deeper ones: the power of legend, the way our ambitions cloud our judgment and what it means to be the best version of ourselves.
It’s all so expansive and far-reaching that it might be intimidating if it weren’t for Walton’s precise, warm prose. In her hands these characters, this world and these ideas become home to the reader, and The Just City is a place you’ll get happily lost in.