The god Apollo chases a nymph. Rather than submit to his amorous advances, she prays to Athene to be turned into a tree, and her wish is granted. Apollo is baffled. After a discussion with Athene, trying to understand what happened, he decides to try living as a mortal for a while, to understand this whole thing about “volition” and the “equal significance” of people.

At the same time, Athene is setting up a city where she and a bunch of people can experiment with living after the principles of Plato’s Republic, so that’s where Apollo-as-mortal goes as well. The city is populated – following Plato’s instructions – with elders and children. For elders, Athene brings people from various points throughout history who have read Republic and prayed to Athene to be taken there. For children, they purchase slaves. And then follows the experiment of actually putting Plato’s ideas about a Just City into practice.

I haven’t read anything of Plato, but neither have the children of the Just City, so it’s not a prerequisite in any way. We learn the principles along with them.

The results are mixed, and not surprisingly, in the end it turns out that some ideas look good on paper but when you get into the nitty-gritty details, life is not that simple.

This may sound altogether dry and philosophical, but it isn’t. There is plenty of interesting detail about everyday life in the growing, developing city, as well as actual story lines, interesting characters, relationships between them etc. Foremost among them is Simmea, one of the children brought to the city to grow up there. We see her traumatic arrival, her bright-eyed earnest efforts to become her best self, but also her doubts about some aspects of life in the city.

For some reason, Athene doesn’t bring Plato himself to the city, but she does bring Sokrates, after a while. He does what he always does in books and starts asking difficult questions, throwing everything into disarray. What seemed so clear and righteous and just now becomes uncertain, unpredictable and questionable.

This was a fascinating read. Thought-provoking, unlike anything else, but also very readable and interesting as a work of fiction, not at all heavy or dry as you might expect a philosophical thought experiment to be.

If you’re hesitating, here are two reviews that I liked, from The Globe and Mail and Russ Walton.