Jo Walton’s The Just City was one of my favorite books of last year. The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, was not quite as good, but it was interesting enough, and its game-changing ending left me curious about this, the final book in the trilogy. It turns out that although Necessity takes on some intriguing ideas, it doesn’t quite live up to its own potential. I found it a bit of a disappointment overall.
To discuss this book, I’m going to have to share some of the major surprises from the previous books, so if you’re planning on reading those and don’t want to be spoiled, you might want to skip the rest of this review. Just bear in mind that my disappointment in this book is fairly mild and does not diminish my enthusiasm for the Thessaly series as a whole and the first book in particular.
This book takes place 40 years after the events of the previous book. The Platonic cities have made themselves a home on their new planet, which they call Plato. Once at war, they now life peacefully, each city interpreting Plato in its own way, with citizens choosing to join the city that suits them best. Workers are treated as full citizens, and members of an alien species called the Saeli have joined in, establishing family units they call pods, where their three genders come together to produce and raise offspring.
The story of Necessity is told by multiple narrators. Pytheas returns, now in his immortal Apollo form, having come to the end of his mortal life as the novel begins. A second narrator, Jason, is a fisherman who presents a sort of outsider’s view. He’s not a total outsider, however, as his crew includes Marsilia, a granddaughter of Pytheas and member of the ruling council. She likes to fish with Jason as a break from her primary assigned work, and her narration provides the human insider’s view. Finally, there’s Crocus, the first Worker to achieve consciousness, who shares some of the history of the city and his own journey to consciousness.
As the book begins, Pytheas has just died and a human ship has made contact with the Platonians. What would these humans, who developed separately from the Platonians, be like? How would they react when finding other humans in outer space? Would they even remember Plato? Could they even find a shared language? Unfortunately, this storyline is relegated to the fringes of the novel, because Athene has gone missing, having decided to go and investigate the Chaos outside known time and space. She leaves a trail of clues for Apollo the others to follow, requiring them to go back in time. A Saeli god gets involved, and Hermes becomes important as well. Whatever they do as they move through time, they are bound by necessity to keep the present as they know it intact.
One of the reasons this book disappointed me is that I just don’t find the doings of the gods all that interesting, and their activities constituted the bulk of the story. Even then, the resolution to the problem involving Athene seemed too easy. And there’s a period in the book where the multiple timelines got, to me, unnecessarily confusing, which added to my frustration. I wanted to learn more about the meeting with the humans and about the challenges of merging human and alien cultures. All of these concepts are introduced, but they’re resolved in a few pages. The previous books were so rich in thought about how to balance different perspectives, but here it just seemed to happen without significant struggle.
And there were plenty of opportunities for struggle. Crocus, under the influence of Sokrates, whose return pleased me, is pressed to give more thought to the rights and independence of Workers. The Earth humans, however, have Workers who do not appear to have personhood rights. Crocus wonders if they have consciousness and what to do about it. But the problem is glossed over. Similarly, the differing conceptions of family among the Saeli presents a momentary conflict that is quickly dismissed. The dismissal is a lovely moment, and I was pleased to see it, but I’m not convinced that the practice of living it out would be so simple. Call me cynical, I guess.
It is possible that my personal tendency to cynicism is the barrier that kept me from loving this book. Apollo notes in his closing remarks that he ended this last book with hope. It is a hopeful book, rich in the idea that conflict can be overcome. But I don’t really buy it, and even if I did, I also recognize that conflict is often what drives good books. The lack of serious conflict here lowers the stakes too much, and so I wasn’t as engaged as I was in the previous books.
But, as I said before, this anti-climactic ending to the series does not diminish my appreciation for the first two books. And I’m not sorry to have read this because I was curious about how things turned out. But I wish the book lived up to its potential.