The Price of Power, James W. Huston

Avon, 1999, 503 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73160-6

I suppose that it was just a matter of time until someone thought about producing a hybrid thriller including elements of both military fiction and courtroom drama. You may pick James W. Huston’s The Price of Power expecting a political thriller (it’s certainly marketed as such), but it proves to be something a bit more diverse than that.

The story picks up in media res, as terrorists take a family hostage and an admiral is put in handcuffs. I hadn’t read Huston’s previous Balance of Power, so the initial setup seems awfully busy. “Hey, there’s another book’s worth of stuff in there” I thought, before figuring out that there was indeed another book out there. Ironically, some of the previous novel’s material seems a bit forced when you don’t have the context, such as the physical wounds suffered by the protagonist.

The plot that gradually emerges is a power contest between Congress and the President, one that will be fought through two separate court battles. The President is impeached, a court martial takes place, marines are asked to stand by and terrorists attack.

It wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if it wasn’t for Jim Dillon, our endearingly clever protagonist. He’s the type of smart-alecky hero who would be insufferable in real-life, but infuses this novel with enough interest to see us through. Dillon is a legal hacker of sorts; he manages to find hidden tricks in the U.S. Constitution and exploits them to maximum effect. The Price of Power is a journey of sort for him; he’ll quit his job and go out on a limb to do what he thinks is right, possibly losing everything in the process. Though happenstance, he will find himself prosecuting one of the biggest constitutional cases in the history of the United States. Not only does he come out of his with his honour intact, but he even manages to get the girl in the process!

Dillon is one of the reasons why, in the end, the legal manoeuvrings in The Price of Power end up being much more interesting than the actual military firefights. All the SEALs fighting for America in this novel are as professional as we’d like them to be, but that doesn’t leave a lot of place for drama. Dillon, on the other hand, is a young man clearly out of his element. While the SEALs are pretty much going to win no matter what when faced with disorganized terrorist forces, Dillon can only depend on his cleverness and legal skills to find the quick trick to save his case. His adversaries are far more dangerous… and then there’s something about courtrooms that just compels dramatic interest. Whatever the reason, The Price of Power finds its groove in the legal suspense, not the military action. Some of the latter could have been cut without undue harm to the novel.

It helps considerably that Huston’s writing is clear and to the point. What doesn’t work as well is part of his overall premise. Sure, the President of the United States has the responsibility to protect the citizens of his country against all dangers, but does that mean he can be impeached if he refuses to use military force? It sounds a lot like right-wing rhetoric and probably is, but Huston does only a fair job at exploring these issues. Some of it simply sounds silly: “Are you a pacifist, Mr. President?”

No matter; I found myself unexpectedly captivated by Jim Dillon and The Price of Power, reading a bit too late in the night just to see what would happen next. While it would be a bit much to claim that The Price of Power is anything more than simply a good thriller, it does deliver the goods splendidly. It wouldn’t do to ask much more than that.

[November 2002: Balance of Power is indeed the setup.  Though it’s not mandatory reading, it does add a lot to the story and proves to be a quick enjoyable read, even to those who have read the second volume.  Ironically enough, the flaws and strength of the first volume are almost identical to its sequel: Great protagonist, excellent legal hacking, but boy do things get boring whenever we’re dealing with the military side of things.]

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