Jo Walton is one of science fiction's most versatile, thoughtful, and gripping writers. After a half-dozen wildly original fantasy novels, she wrote a startling trilogy of murder mysteries in an alternate England where the Nazis won the war (these being a brilliant parable about the war on terror and the creeping authoritarianism of the post-9/11 world); then the blockbuster Hugo/Nebula winner Among Others, a fictionalized memoir of growing up with science fiction; and finally the radioactively good, tear-jerking My Real Children (and then there was What Makes This Book So Great, an outstanding collection of critical essays about some of science fiction's most enduring novels).
Now we have The Just City, which is as different from the rest as it could be, and yet unmistakable a Jo Walton book, which is a very good thing as far as I'm concerned.
Athena — who lives outside of time, but is constrained by fate and providence — has heard the prayers of all her worshipers through the ages who have read Plato's Republic and yearned to live in "The Just City" that Plato attributes to Socrates's teachings. So she summons them all to a volcanic island in the Mediterranean, an island that is doomed to be lost to eruption in a few generations, ensuring that her tampering with the timestream will not unduly disrupt the future, which will only dimly remember the island as Atlantis.
In this place, men and women from all times and places set to making a place for the children whom they will raise to be philosopher kings. They ply the slave markets of antiquity, bending time to bring scores of ten year olds to the island, where they are arranged into dormitories under the supervision of these "Masters." The gruntwork of the island is done by powerful robots from far into the future, that only the most far-future of the masters can maintain or program.
The children of the Just City are then inducted into the Platonic system of education and indoctrination. And here is where Walton shines, as she always does, in the small and hurtful and glorious business of interpersonal relationships. Some of her children are forever scarred by slavery, others are lifted from it. Some find Plato's teachings and philosophy to be a powerful force for happiness and satisfaction, others fare less well. The others around them — including, eventually, both Socrates and Apollo (who has incarnated himself as a mortal child) — reflect back their philosophical and human development, and show us the incredible beauty and the cruelty of utopian projects.
Nobody writes like Walton. The Just City manages to both sympathize with social engineering at the same time as it demolishes paternalistic solutions to human problems. In so doing, this book about philosophy, history, gender and freedom also manages to be a spectacular coming-of-age tale that encompasses everything from courtroom dramas to sexual intrigue.