Power of Three - Diana Wynne Jones

Power of Three - Diana Wynne Jones

Power of Three is. Um. Hard to describe, hard to sum up, but really, really fascinating.

 

It begins as what looks like a strange, violent fairytale in a primitive world of indifferent Giants and warlike Dorig, a prehistorical, almost Celtic world where curses are real and leaders are arbitrary and the sons of chiefs wear collars of gold. Two children, out on the Moor, meet a Dorig child wearing an intricate collar. One of the children, son of the chief of the mound in which he lives, demands the collar; when the Dorig refuses to hand it over, he is killed for it, but not before he places a terrible curse upon it. And so begins a tale of unlikely heroes and unexpected humanity.

 

The first few chapters are so utterly unlike any Jones novel - or, come to think of it, any children's novel - I've read previously that I was, for a while, flummoxed by its oddness. The prose is stylised, often possessing the perfunctoriness of a fairy tale (one of the original ones, mind you, translated straight out of the Grimms' German) or even an Old English epic like Beowulf. The landscape of the Moor is greyly bleak, even apocalyptically so, and full of hidden and shadowy dangers. It is, for want of a better word, strange.

 

And yet, one of the wonderful things about Power of Three is how it opens out, gradually, teasingly, so that by the end of the book things look quite different. The main narrative centres around three children, Ceri, Ayna and Gair (none of whom, incidentally, are the children who began the book). Ceri and Ayna are magically gifted; Gair is...not, as far as he is aware. In navigating this culture of interracial warfare, tribal politics and magical ceremony, they learn things about their world, and we do, too, along with them, so that by the time we've finished reading Power of Three it is no longer the same book at all.

 

I'm sorry if all this sounds a little vague; it's a hard book to write about without spoilers, and the real joy here is in discovery, in piecing bits and pieces together as the children do, in learning and knowing and thinking.

 

It's a book that places great stock in knowledge, in looking beyond the received wisdom of one's ancestors and in thinking for oneself - all of this without violating the rich and fascinating framework of magic that lies behind the tale. I love, for instance, the fact that Ayna's gift is Sight Asked: she can answer any question asked of her about the future. The catch? If you ask the wrong question, you'll get an answer that may deceive you into complacency. It's like wishing on a genie; the genie will give you exactly what you asked for, and no more or less. Success relies upon asking the right questions. You cannot find the right questions by magic; magic is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it cannot lead to infinite power, infinite wisdom; it is only another tool, like electricity, like words. And asking the right questions means thinking beyond the old questions. It means looking at other ways of knowing, thinking, questioning, it means talking to others who want or need different things, it means thinking (to use an old cliche) outside of the box.

 

It's impossible to say everything there is to say about this book, this remarkable, skilful, fascinating book that is as much about story itself as it is about anything else. Not only is it technically brilliant, it tells a good tale, too, one about friendship and reconciliation and learning about who you are. Just excellent.