The DWJ Project: Power of Three
I’m way behind on posting, so expect a couple more of these soon.
This book, more than any other, illustrates how idiosyncratic my divide is between my first-tier favorites and the second tier. Power of Three is in the latter category, not because of any flaw in the story — it’s excellent, probably one of her best — but simply because it never quite got into my imaginative foundations the way some of her others did. I don’t know what made some books do that, and others not; all I know is that it isn’t a question of quality. This is a wonderful book.
From the back cover copy, because my brain is too lazy to come up with its own plot summary:
Something is horribly wrong on the Moor. Gair and his people are surrounded by enemies — the menacing Giants and the devious, cruel Dorig. For centuries the three races have lived side by side, but now suspicion and hatred have drawn them all into a spiral of destruction.
With the existence of his people threatened, Gair realizes that evil forces are at work. For the Moor is blighted by a curse of ancient and terrifying power . . .
A good summary, except that the final bit is quite wrong. I know it sounds more fantastical to talk about ancient curses, but one of the things I like about this novel is that the curse isn’t ancient. It was placed within living memory — it’s the first thing that occurs in the book — and is the simple, horrifying consequence of somebody being greedy and foolish and violent. And, as in The Magicians of Caprona, it’s at least in part up to the younger generation to undo it. (Not entirely up to them, though. One of the other things I like is the role played by Gest and Adara, and Mr. Masterfield and Mr. Claybury, and at the center of it all, Hathil.)
There are lots of other things to like, too. The little grace notes in the worldbuilding, like the respect Gair’s people pay to bees, and the customs of the Dorig. The perspective on what constitutes magic. The very believable relationships: not only are there lots of great sibling setups throughout this, but once again, as with Caprona, Dark Lord of Derkholm, and a few other books, we get imperfect-but-strong families, instead of abusive parents and neglected children. And the ending is a lovely balance of the mythic and the personal, which is one of the things I have always loved Jones for.
That’s a lot of what I wanted to say, but a few more bits do involve spoilers.
Omniscient narration is mostly out of fashion these days, but I have to say, this book made me think about its strengths, and the things you can do with it that a more limited perspective wouldn’t allow. I’m thinking specifically of Gair’s relationship with his father, as summarized in this passage:
Gest could not understand [Gair’s desire to be alone]. He liked to live surrounded by other people. Things he did not understand always irritated him. He tried to be fair, but he could not manage to show as much affection to Gair as he did to Ayna and Ceri. Gair saw it. He knew his father was disappointed with him for turning out so ordinary. He went on to his windowsill all the more to avoid Gest. And the longer he spent there, the less Gest could understand him. by the time Gair was twelve, no two people in Garholt understood one another less than Gest and Gair.
In modern YA (though this is probably more a middle-grade book, by current categories), we would only get Gair’s perspective, which is that he thinks he’s ordinary. We would know, by narrative convention, that he probably isn’t, but until the revelation of his specialness came, we would be expected to play along with the trope. And you know, as a reader, I’m kind of tired of that. So I quite liked the fact that the pov here allows us all to agree that Gair thinks he’s ordinary but isn’t — and also shows us Gest’s side of things, which helps keep him sympathetic, which he might not otherwise be. And that plays out through the whole book, drawing our attention to parallels and contrasts between characters that Gair isn’t consciously aware of, and heightening tension by helping us see that his weird decisions toward the end come out of the conflict between his Gift and the curse. Conventional wisdom is that a limited pov helps us empathize with a character, but in this case I think omniscient serves that purpose better.
The highlighting of those points of mismatch gets echoed in the way the three peoples are set up. There’s a clear mythic template at work, with them as the People of the Sun, People of the Moon, and People of the Earth — but Jones avoids the trap of fantasy essentialism, which is to treat that template as a deterministic straitjacket, only occasionally broken by a rebel. Hathil is, as Gest says, “a fire-eater among the wrong people,” but he doesn’t repudiate his kin, nor is there any suggestion he’s somehow not really a Dorig because of it. And of course a lot of the resolution depends on the connections, rather than the differences, between the three peoples: most obviously the Gair/Gerald/Hafny linkage, but others as well. There’s just enough truth to the mythic foundation to give things resonance, but just enough variation to make it complicated.
I do wonder a bit about the setting. If the radios and such didn’t make the nature of the Giants clear, the place names tossed around later situate this firmly in England; what I wonder about is timing. The opening chapter, with Orban and Adara, says the Giants “were at war among themselves,” because the children can hear their weapons. Is that meant to be World War II? Because unless they’re near a military base (and there’s no hint to support that notion), I’m not aware of any other modern conflict that involved large-scale fighting on or over British soil. (But my knowledge of modern history is woefully bad — so if there is such a conflict, please do let me know.) The book was published in 1976, so I guess the timeline might work: Adara was supposed to be seven at the start, and Gair is twelve for the main events, which has him being born around 1964, give or take a few years for the vagaries of publishing. I’m curious to know if that’s the actual interpretation I’m supposed to put on it.
I think I had a few other, smaller things to say, but I’ve forgotten them. That’s what I get for not posting as soon as I finished reading the book, I suppose. 😛 Anyway, look for more posts soon!