Sixteen year old Adam Daley's life changes suddenly one afternoon when everything electronic crashes at his high school. Like everyone else, he and his friend, Todd, believe that the power failure is just limited to computers and phones and will be temporary. However, they soon discover that anything run by computers, including cars and planes, will not function. Lucky for Adam, he drives a 1981 Omega to school, so while those students with BMWs are left stranded, Adam is able to drive Todd and Lori Peterson, a girl he's been crushing on, home.
Adam picks up his younger siblings, twins Rachel and Danny. With their cars not working, people begin walking home and without planes, this means Adam's father, who is a pilot, is stranded in Chicago.
When Adam arrives home he meets his quirky neighbour, Herb Campbell who has only recently moved into their neighbourhood of Eden Mills. Almost seventy, Herb is a retired government employee and is a ham radio operator and all around handyman. He'd lent Adam and his father tools as they built the ultra light plane in the family's garage. Adam has recognized that there is something different about Herb - that he always seems to be studying people. From the very beginning of the crisis Herb begins to reveal the many talents he has for reading people and situations, as well as for planning.
Immediately Herb has Adam drive him to the nearest pool shop where he purchases enormous quantities of chlorine. Herb explains to Adam the rule of survival in emergency situations: a person can go three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. The chlorine tablets are for water purification, suggesting that Herb believes that this computer blackout will be lasting much longer than three days. That night Adam learns that his mother who is a police captain, has stationed a cop, Brett in Eden Mills and he sees Herb standing guard at the top of their street. Herb has learned that while most people are calm, there has been some looting overnight and without computers, most first responders (police and fire) are unable to assist.
Things quickly turn ugly in Adam's neighbourhood when the local mini-mall is attacked by a crowd of people desperate for food and water. Adam's mother stops the crowd but it is Herb who organizes the distribution and payment of the supplies. They decide to organize patrols of the Eden Mills using the older noncomputerized vehicles they have found. The patrols include the four police officers, Howie, Brett, Sergeant Evans and Officer O'Malley organized into two checkpoints and four patrols.
Adam and Herb go out to check on Adam's friend, Lori who lives on a farm. Herb and Adam meet Lori's father, Stan Peterson who tells Herb that people showed up at the farm trying to take food and water. Mr Peterson wants to remain on the farm and Adam and Todd are left to help guard the property. When people show up that night demanding water, Adam manages to talk the situation down but it's evident that the farm will soon be under attack by people desperate for food and water.
Meanwhile in the suburbs and the surrounding city, assaults, robberies, fires and looting continue. Herb suggests that they increase their patrols and also take a census of Eden Mills to learn what skills are available to them. Adam and his mother also learn that Herb is considering the possibility that they might have to abandon the neighbourhood because they will be unable to defend it and also they will be unable to feed the population living there. But Adam has another idea; to use all the available land to grow crops including the large green area underneath the power lines behind the house. Herb considers that this plan will only work if they can get the Petersons to abandon the farm and move into Eden Mills. That turns out to be easier than they anticipated when the farm is attacked by men in a truck. Herb tells Stan Peterson that it is only a matter of time before the farm is overrun and that they are best to leave while they still can.
Adam now realizes he needs to finish his ultralight plane because being airborne means they can learn what is happening around them. When they take to the air, they discover that a nearby police station has been destroyed by what appears to be rocket propelled grenades - an indication that someone somewhere is willing to take on the police for control. This discovery pushes Herb to convince Adam's mother to abandon her station and move the officers into the neighbourhood. With the Peterson's now moved into Eden Mills, Herb, Kate, Adam and the rest of the leaders begin to organize. They reinforce the walls around the neighbourhood, begin preparing for planting, organize a committee of civilians that includes Dr. Morgan, Councilwoman Stevens, Judge Roberts, the fire chief Captain Saunders and an engineer, Mr. Nichols.
But the flights also reveal something more sinister coming their way. When a nearby neighbourhood, Burnham, whom they have befriended, is attacked and almost everyone killed, Herb and Adam set out to discover who has committed this act of aggression. Evidence suggests that a rogue military group with rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and heavy assault weapons attacked the neighbourhood. They took no prisoners and killed everyone they could find. Knowing they will be next, Herb, Adam, Todd, Brett and Kate must do everything in their power to defend their lives and more importantly the values they hold, if the world they want to preserve has any chance of survival. In a life and death battle, they must determine how to confront a group more powerful and better armed.
Walters, a well known Canadian author, builds his story brick by brick, methodically outlining all the steps ordinary civilians must do so as to survive when all social structure and civil authority has broken down. Most of us live day to day, without reserves of basic items like water, canned food, batteries and candles, matches and windup clocks and radios. But if a disaster struck many of us would be at the mercy of those who have the supplies needed to survive. Walters does a fantastic job at demonstrating how quickly social norms and authority would collapse and how people who normally wouldn't steal and murder, begin to act very badly, very quickly when placed under enormous pressure. He also portrays the power struggle for resources that begins to develop both locally (in Adam's neighbourhood) and also on a much larger scale when Adam and Herb are faced with taking on the rogue military group. In this respect, The Rule of Three is frighteningly realistic.
The author maintains tension in the novel by never revealing the cause of the loss of power and the use of computer technology in the novel. Herb tells Adam that whatever the cause it must be worldwide because if it were not, other countries would have come either to help or attack them. This leads Adam to realize that whatever Eden Mills is experiencing is likely a reflection of what is happening all over North America and the world.
Against this dystopian backdrop, the author does a great job of developing both his characters and their relationships to one another. By far the most interesting character in the novel is Herb Campbell. From the beginning Walters establishes Herb as a mysterious person with a cool demeanor that masks some rather interesting talents. Everything Herb predicts will happen eventually does happen leading the Adam to conclude that he has experienced this exact situation at least once before. This causes Adam to open his eyes and really study Herb, just as Herb studies everyone around him. But Herb is also a highly conflicted character. He tells Adam that he was both "used" and "almost used up" and that he has done things he isn't proud of and that he hopes Adam will never have to do. Herb proceeds cautiously in everything he does, but acts when he feels it is necessary. It is obvious he is trying to protect Adam from falling into similar situations but also trying to develop in him the skills he will need to survive. In this respect, Herb is a mentor for Adam, guiding him towards what will likely be a leadership role in this new world. Their relationship is a major strength of this novel as the two characters are very different; Herb is the experienced, mature former government "operative", while Adam is young, naive and trusting. However, Adam begins to adopt some of Herb's techniques in dealing with people and also develops some of his forward thinking ways.
Walters plans two more books in the series. Walters has based this series on his own neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ontario but the novels are set in America (as noted by the reference to the "Stars and Stripes" at the local police station).
With its exciting cover to draw in readers, The Rule of Three is a great novel for young teen boys and anyone who enjoys adventure novels and the great stories being written by Canadian author, Eric Walters.
The Rule of Three by Eric Walters
Toronto: Razorbill 2014