Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three (1976)
One of the things I love about Diana Wynne Jones’s books is that they are always thoughtful without being didactic. One never has the sense of being offered a “problem novel” with some topic-du-jour to be chewed on for one’s own good. They always deliver a cracking good story, funny, inventive and compulsive reading. But at the center of the tale is some real dilemma, some aspect of being human, which gives life and direction to the storytelling and makes it linger in the mind after the book is finished.
What kind of sacrifice does it take to end a pointless feud between warring peoples? This timeless (and timely) question is the kernel of Power of Three. Its setting is simply known as the Moor, and in a few pages Jones instantly gives us an impression of an enchanted landscape, misty, green, and full of old magic. The people of the Moor seem to have something magical about them as well, for in the opening scene one of them, young Orban, draws down a curse upon himself when he kills a Dorig, member of an enemy race.
Jones’s picture of the Moor with its three uneasily cohabiting peoples is a quiet masterpiece. Inexperienced writers use pages of exposition to do what she does here simply through narrative voice, tone and dialogue. And just as we’re settling into this marvelously convincing world, she gives it a little twist to shake things up a bit. Everything depends on one’s perspective, as Ayna, Ceri and Gair have to learn.
In fact, the more I try to define this book, the more difficult I find it. It’s as hard to capture its essence as to get a hold of one of the shape-shifting Dorig. Is it a world-building high fantasy? A relationship-based family narrative? A quest adventure? An introspective psychological study? A story about stories?
You’ll find a bit of each in Power of Three, woven into a seamless tale that draws you onward with Jones’ trademark humor, compassion and originality. I can’t recommend anything more highly than that.
Originally published in 1976, Power of Three has gone through several hardback and paperback editions. The one I have in hand now is the HarperTrophy paperback with a cover illustration that I find somewhat misleading, dominated as it is by a dragon-like countenance with fiery eyes. The spiral designs around the edges are more satisfactory in terms of capturing the flavor of the story. Maybe the cover artist found it as difficult as I do to pin down a definitive image. Just don’t get the impression that this is a book about flaming-eyed monsters; it’s much more about people, about how their choices and decisions, strengths and weaknesses, past and future weave together into a web as complex as Celtic knotwork.Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
Published by Greenwillow in 1976
Format: Hardcover from Personal Collection