Nathan’s Review of The Price of Power by Michael Michel
Publication Date: 6 February, 2023
Series: Book #1 in The Price of Power
Genre: Grimdark fantasy
Prince Barodane could not hold back the darkness. Not even in himself. He laid an innocent city in its grave and then died a hero.
In his absence, war whispers across the land.
Power-hungry highborn dispatch spies and assassins to the shadows as they maneuver for the throne, while an even greater threat rises in the South. Monsters and cultists flock to the banners of a mad prophet determined to control reality…and then shatter it.
Destiny stalks three to the brink of oblivion.
A dead prince that isn’t actually dead. Barodane buried his shameful past in a stupor of drugs, drink, and crime, and now, he’d rather watch the world fall apart than wear a crown again.
An orphan with hero’s blood who is forced to make a harrowing choice: betray her country or sacrifice her first love.
And a powerful seer who has no choice at all–her grandson must die.
If any of them fails to pay the price…
The cost will be the world’s complete annihilation.
Review of The Price of Power
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
I first read A Game of Thrones when I was in high school and I was entranced. This was my first adult fantasy book (I know I know, starting with a big one) and I was swept up in this big, multi-POV story in a world that felt bigger than anything I had ever explored before. Since then I keep trying to chase that high, and only rarely have I ever gotten that feeling again.
While The Price of Power doesn’t quite reach the heights of George R.R. Martin’s opus, it definitely scratches that itch with its expansive, multi-POV story. What is particularly impressive about this is that Martin had a long, long career before writing Thrones, while this is (to my knowledge) Michel’s debut. This means that not only should you pick up The Price of Power on its own merits, but that you should be extra excited about the future of this series as Michel becomes even stronger at his craft.
Like any multi-POV epic, it is hard to describe the plot of The Price of Power; this works both to its benefit and to its detriment (at least at the beginning of the story). Michel introduces readers to five primary POV characters, and only two of which ever interact. Barodane is the Crown Prince and ex-soldier trying to run from his past, and he does so by escaping into drugs and alcohol. His guardswoman, Garlenna, is tasked with bringing Barodane back into the royal fold to save the country, whether he wants it or not. Ishoa is a young orphaned princess who must prove herself worthy of the crown, although proving her worth involves more dangerous tasks that she ever imagined. Thephos is a young man without any meaning in his life, so he decides to scale the quest of becoming one of the legendary Awakened. And finally we have the grandmother (identity concealed here intentionally) who has the ability to wield magic, and is now trying to prepare her young grandson for his future role.
From just these brief descriptions, it is immediately clear that there is a lot going on in The Price of Power. It is not immediately evident how each of their plot-lines are connected or what the story is building towards. This leaves the pacing in the beginning of the book to be a bit slow. Michel has a lot of groundwork to cover – many characters to introduce, worlds to build, and history to convey. Luckily, Michel’s storytelling style is engaging and hooks its claws into you. While the beginning of the book is a tad confusing the over-arching storyline is not clear (and, honestly, it isn’t all that clear by the end of the book either), rather than feeling like the book was plodding I found myself sinking into Michel’s world. The anticipation of where the book was going became a positive rather than a hurdle I had to cross.
Therefore, if you are someone who likes a clear, singular plot this book won’t be for you. However if you are craving these big, expansive stories (stories that don’t seem to be published as much by the trade publishers anymore), you will feel right at home here. If you feel like you are vibing with the story but are struggling to fully engage with Michel’s world, I recommend reading the first half the book in shorter chunks. Read just a bit a day so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming, and by the second half you will not want to put it down.
What The Price of Power lacks in a unified plot, it more than makes up for with its theme. The title says it all – all of the major POV characters are on personal journeys to see what they are willing to do for power. Is Barodane willing to go back to his royal destiny? Can Thephos really enduring the physical and emotional trauma of scaling the mountain to become Awakened? Is Ishoa ready to take the crown by any means necessary and defend her nation?
Michel explores the costs and consequences of power. Even when power is handed to you by “divine right”, even when you feel like you have nothing to lose, or even when you have generations worth of experience, power is never easy. And its through this exploration of power that Michel really earns his grimdark title. Yes, terrible things happen in this world. Lots of characters die in gruesome ways; even for the so called “upper crust” this is not an easy world to navigate. But it is not these elements that I was attracted to when I dove into this grimdark tale. Instead, it was the way in which all of the main characters were trying to scale structural walls. While there are “bad guys” in The Price of Power, the villains here are (for the most part) not individuals but institutions. The crown, the military, and the magical fabric of existence are the true antagonists here, antagonists that won’t be stopped with the demise of one person or groups of people. The quests of Barodane, Ishoa, Thephos and more won’t be solved by a single quest – a dark lord to defeat, a ring to destroy, or a long lost magical item to find – but rather finding ways to navigate within a restrictive social fabric. Some of the characters want to destroy this fabric, others want to improve it from within, and others just don’t want to be suffocated by it.
What results is a fantasy book that isn’t grimdark because it lacks a moral compass, but because it knows that people in power ignore said compass. There is right and wrong (maybe not quite that binary, but you get the point) in Michel’s world, but surviving and doing right don’t always align.
Plus, Michel was able to keep his grimdark world feeling gritty and brutal while imbuing it with plenty of magic. The magic in The Price of Power is ever-present without feeling like it overwhelms the story. I’m not going to get into it too much because the exploration of the magic and how it influences the world is a lot of fun. Essentially, the magic users in this world are called “The Awakened”, who are god-like people who have summited a mountain (the quest Thephos is on) and attained a magic power by doing so. The power you get is completely random, but it can mean manipulating space and time, communing with the “other side”, and more. It’s not only a fun play on the “everyone has a different” power brand of magic, but it nicely aligns with the theme of the book. Magic, a form of power, comes with a price. You don’t just get it because you were born with it (mostly) but because you had to earn it. Most people die on their quest to become Awakened, and so the cost is high.
As much as I liked The Price of Power and highly recommend it to readers of epic, grimdark fantasy, the one element that kept this from being an all-timer, five star read for me was the character work. Michel has deeply flawed, complex, three-dimensional characters with fascinating backstories, needs, and personalities. However, I never felt emotionally invested in them. Rather than feeling like I was in this world with them, I was abstracted from them. Almost as if I was reading a non-fiction biography of them rather than an immersive fictional story. The characters are great, particularly some side characters like The Madness (a personal favorite), and they are well developed. The issue isn’t the characters themselves, but rather how Michel writes them into the plot through his style and prose. The world, plot, and themes prevented this from being too big of a problem for me, but it was the one thing that disappointed me a bit while reading.
However, overall Michel is an exciting new voice in the grimdark world. He takes cues from a lot of (now classic) epic and grimdark works and gives them just enough of a spin to keep them fresh and interesting. Not only is this a book worth your time, but Michel is an author to watch out for. Book 2 cannot come soon enough.
Concluding Thoughts: A book perfect for fans of epic, grimdark multi-POV stories with expansive worldbuilding and plot (like A Song of Ice and Fire), The Price of Power deftly explores all of the aspects of power – what does it cost and what are you willing to pay? Michel’s worldbuilding is top notch, and he integrates a unique and interesting magic system that doesn’t overwhelm the plot. The first half is a bit slow and the character work could be more engaging, but this is a series and author to watch.