“Some people find it more difficult to be easy with other people, and perhaps if they seem proud, it’s the best they can do.”
Diana Wynne Jones
Power of Three is…hard to write about without spoilers.
It begins with three children. One is a water-dwelling Dorig; the other two are land-dwelling Lymen. One of the Lymen kills the Dorig for the gold collar he wears around his neck, an act whose ramifications spread out throughout the Moor on which they all live, throughout their respective societies and beyond.
It begins as a strange sort of fairytale; one of the old ones, translated straight from the Grimms’ German or from even further back, from the Old English Beowulf or the ancient Norse myths.
It begins in a violent, grey world of earth and air and water, elemental and dangerous, shifting and dangerous; a world where words have real power, where creatures slip like strange fish through standing water, where green gold threatens constantly to become black ore; a prehistorical, Celtic world of sheep and superstition and the vague, distant rumour of far-off Giants.
It begins as a simple tale of curses and revenge. It ends as something far more complex.
The titular Three around whom the main narrative centres are Lymen, children of the chief of Garholt, a city-mound on the Moor. Ceri and Ayna are both magically gifted; their brother Gair thinks he is ordinary. They inhabit a world of interracial warfare, of strained tribal politics and of stylised, ceremonial magic. And when one day Garholt is attacked, their need forces them to confront a world beyond its borders.
And the really clever, really lovely thing about this book is the way in which the narrative zooms out, as it were, so that we learn at the same rate as the Three do. The revelations which Ayna, Ceri and Gair confront are the ones which we confront, too. The book is centrally concerned, I think, with knowledge; and, more importantly, the right kind of knowledge. Ayna’s magical gift is Sight Asked: ask her a question about the future, and she can answer it. But you get the answer to precisely the question you asked. Think of all those stories where someone wishes for something and gets exactly what they asked for. It’s like that. So getting the knowledge you really need requires asking the right questions.
Magic won’t give you the right questions. In Power of Three, magic is only a tool, like electricity, or like words. What gives you the right questions is being willing to confront new kinds of knowledge; knowledge of other minds, other cultures, other ways of thinking. The Three’s journey through the world of the Moor requires a huge paradigm shift, and it’s that paradigm shift that allows both the characters and the readers to solve many of the mysteries that the narrative poses. It’s that new way of thinking that allows them, and us, to ask, finally, the right questions.
In case you hadn’t realised: I was very, very impressed with this book.
It’s not necessarily an easy read; as in A Tale of Time City, the other Jones book I read for the Children’s Lit paper, the voice of Power of Three felt a little dated, a little hard to get past, as it were, into the story. The prose, also, tends towards the elliptical and the perfunctory, fairytale-esque in its often disorienting habit, especially towards the beginning, of summarising rather than showing, of singling out only key scenes, themes, images to describe in full. But that, I think, adds to the wonder of it all; it is simply another way of knowing, another way of learning, another way of thinking and seeing.
Sorry. I’m going into English Student mode here. But, really, Power of Three is a very good book, one that’s technically skilled as well as narratively satisfying, thematically rich and well-told. It thinks while it storytells. It grows as it progresses, and we grow with it. It’s a lovely tale about friendship and growing up, and it’s also a book I want to reread and rethink over and over again. This is what fantasy is for.