Since I read this six months ago, I am not going to recap the plot, which is incredibly spoilery anyway. However, feel free to put spoilers in comments.
Like The Just City, The Philosopher Kings is a novel of ideas populated by painfully human (and some endearingly or terrifyingly inhuman) characters. There was some discussion as to whether the first book made sense as something that human beings would do, even with Godly assistance. I thought that it absolutely rang true as a portrayal of a bunch of single-minded fanatics who get together to run things their way. In other words, a cult. Of course, that is an outsider’s insulting term. An insider would call it a planned community. A true believer would call it a utopia.
I grew up in one of those. The details were totally different, but in many ways the atmosphere was very much the same. I was Matthias, taken from my home at a young age and given a name and identity I never accepted. The moment I got the chance, I snatched another name, one that I felt was true, fled, and began doing what I felt was right, which was basically the opposite of everything I’d been indoctrinated into. Sounds good, right? After all, cults are bad, right?
Well… It worked out for me. I had my own values that I picked up elsewhere, and hung on to for dear life, fixing them more and more into the core of my self at every daily attempt to teach me to believe in something else. I like my values and they suit me, but they are odd values for an American civilian (and have caused quite a lot of conflict in my life when I forget that I am the only person in the room who has them.) “I cannot die until my king has safely reached the fort.” "Service before self." “Duty, honour, courage.”
(On that note, thank you very much, Shivaji, Tanaji, Jijabai, Baji Prabhu, Rani Lakshmibai, for inspiration that lived on hundreds of years beyond your deaths. And thank you even more to the Base Commander of the Ahmednagar Army Base and every single person I ever interacted with who was in or working for the Indian army at Ahmednagar. You were the only people who were consistently kind to me, often going well out of your way or bending rules to do so, and that was so consistent that "protect helpless children whether they're citizens or not" must have been knocked into your heads at boot camp. It is an excellent ideal and I am not surprised that I extrapolated it to "ALL these people's ideals are excellent." In fact, I still think they're excellent and had I been Indian myself, I might well have joined the Army. (To be clear: I think the ideals are excellent. No comment on specific military actions, many of which directly contradict the stated ideals.)
But that was me. If I had decided to take my values from the Catholic school I attended, or from Indira Gandhi, or from Georgette Heyer, or from Kurt Vonnegut, or from any of the other thousands of possible influences on me other than the ones I was actually there to learn, I would have done very different things with my life. Being wronged does not always teach you justice. Having a just cause does not necessarily make your actions just.
As I said in my review of the first novel, you cannot make any sense of this book without the idea that depiction does not equal advocacy. I do know Jo a bit, though not well, but certainly well enough to know that she is not an advocate of rape, slavery, infanticide, torture, colonialism, kidnapping, or any of the other absolutely horrifying things presented in the novel and advocated quite persuasively, or else excused and minimized, by otherwise sympathetic characters.
I expect that there are ideas in the book that Jo does agree with, because there are a lot of ideas in the book, but I don’t know what they are and hesitate to guess, with one exception. I think Jo probably really would like to go back into the past and rescue lost or destroyed works of art, if it could be done without creating some kind of catastrophic butterfly effect. I would too. I think anyone sensitive to art would, unless they are very, very devoted to mono no aware and evanescent art; ice sculptors, perhaps, or tenders of cherry trees.
But despite the patent impossibility of the book advocating everything it’s depicting, it does feel like a book that’s advocating something, partly because the characters are all very passionately advocating things (often completely opposed things), and partly because most thought experiment novels are indeed advocating something and in fact were written for that purpose. But if it’s advocating something, what in the world is it advocating?
I think it’s advocating that you think about the ideas presented and draw your own conclusions. Very consistently, characters who are otherwise good or worthy or admirable people have horrific ideas and do horrifying things. Characters with extremely justifiable grievances are not necessarily nice people; characters who deserve to have bad things happen to them meet fates so far beyond what they deserve that that the reader feels guilty for wishing anything ill on them at all; characters who are charming and talented yet not good at all are exalted for their skills rather than for their moral character; Gods have extraordinary powers, but they are no more moral or ethical or right than any given human.
This is all very deliberate. It makes it impossible for the reader to draw the easy conclusion that good people do good things, bad people do bad things, and the morality of an action is determined by who does it, not by the action itself. The latter is a very common cognitive error that is enormously destructive on both small and worldwide scales. “My country, right or wrong.” “Priests are good and holy, so anything a priest does is good and holy.” “That woman is a liar and a con artist; why should I believe anything she says?” “That man is a war hero; who better to hold public office?”
I don’t know if that’s what I was meant to take from the book, which seems to be written as a mirror distorted just enough to make you really examine what you already believe. But it’s what I do take from it.
When I sat down to think about the book, I came to the conclusion, which had not occurred to me before, that I probably would have enlisted in the Indian army had I had similar encounters with them if I'd been an Indian citizen. In other words: I don't, in fact, have an essential problem with belonging to a cult/planned community/very formalized in-group. I just didn't like the one I was actually in. I think this shows how The Philosopher Kings is a genuinely thought-provoking book.
Also: absolutely killer ending. It was perfect and logical, yet completely unexpected. I can’t wait to read the next book.