Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthew

prisonerPrisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998)
Review by Ian Sales

Three years have passed since the events of An Exchange of Hostages. Bench Inquisitor Andrej Kosciusko has spent those years as Ship’s Doctor aboard the Fleet cruiser-killer Scylla, fulfilling a medical role rather than a torturer’s one. As the second book of Matthews’s series opens, Scylla is part of a fleet currently annexing the world of Eild for the Bench. An Eildish scout ship manages to infiltrate the cruiser-killer, and Kosciusko’s Bond-involuntaries – criminals sentenced to slavery as his security guards, their behaviour managed by a “governor” – find themselves in the thick of the fighting. They acquit themselves so well the captain recommends Revocation of Bond, which would make them free men once again. While that works its way up the chain of command, Kosciusko and his Bond-involuntaries are assigned to Port Rudistal, where Kosciusko will hold the Writ of Inquiry at the Domitt Prison. He will in other words, be the prison’s resident torturer.

But things at the Domitt Prison are not as, well, innocent as they seem. En route from the port, the three cars carrying Kosciusko and his staff are attacked. A mine blows up the lead car, killing several soldiers… and one of the Bond-involuntaries, the one loved the most by Kosciusko, in fact. It is grief for this man which blinds the inquisitor to the true conditions at the prison. He is so set on revenge that he misses what is really going on. Such as, the prison staff are entirely Pyana, but the prisoners are all Nurail. The prison is “filled to capacity”, but every cell is over-crowded. Different prisoners seem to share the same name. The kitchen doesn’t look as busy as it should. And so on.

If An Exchange of Hostages was a nasty novel inasmuch as its protagonist was learning to be a torturer, and practicing his craft as the book progressed… Prisoner of Conscience is much worse. The Pyana treatment of the Nurail is brutal, a thinly-disguised science-fictional treatment of ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. Prisoners are used on work details on projects which will financial benefit the prison administrator, and then murdered if they’re injured or become too weak to work. Othe prisoners are tortured as punishment, or even just for pleasure by sadistic prison staff.

It takes Kosciusko a while to notice all this because he’s so torn up over the death of his Bond-involuntary. And once he starts torturing prisoners – but he does it legally because it is on Record and under Writ – then a lust to inflict pain comes over him, and between that and the crippling angst that follows, he’s not much good for spotting prison irregularities. But spot them he does, eventually. Unfortunately, the prison administrator has a plan to neutralise Kosciusko before he can declare Failure of Writ to the judiciary…

Despite opening with a space battle, Prisoner of Conscience takes a chapter or two to get going. Partly this is because Matthews throws the reader right in at the deep end, making use of terms which she leaves unexplained, such as “maintenance atmosphere” or “carapace hull”. They look like they should parse easily, but there’s something a little bit off about them. It’s an effective world-building technique, but it does require patience from the reader.

The writing is also a little clumsy in the first few chapters, certainly clumsier than I remember from An Exchange of Hostages, with far too much use of “would”, and a tendency to repeat things a little too often. Kosciusko’s somewhat garbled diction also proves more annoying than not. However, in the book’s favour, Kosciusko doesn’t come across as quite so special a snowflake as he did in the first book – although the remaining cast are a little flat and interchangeable. With the exception, that is, of the prison administrator, who is a complete monster; and his assistant, a Nurail trustee who has thrown in his lot with the Pyana, who spends the entire book admiring the administrator’s intelligence.

If Prisoner of Conscience is a slight dip in quality after An Exchange of Hostages, Matthews’s Jurisdiction series is still one of the more interesting to appear in US science fiction. Admittedly, the plot to this book is also quite monstrous, and sensibilities have changed such in the years since it was written that readers will probably struggle more with the atrocities it describes than they might have done in the late 1990s. But the books are definitely worth persevering with, and it’s a shame Matthews’s career seems to have imploded when Meisha Merlin collapsed shortly after the turn of the millennium.

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
Review by Ian Sales

Andrej Kosciusko is a prince. Though he has qualified as a doctor at a prestigious university, his father has ordered him to join Fleet. Even worse, he has been told to serve as a Chief Medical Officer aboard a cruiserkiller-class warship. This means he will also have a Writ to Inquire – in other words, he will be a licensed torturer. Kosciusko, scion of a privileged family, a gifted doctor, rightly thinks this is morally abhorrent, but he has no choice. An Exchange of Hostages, the first of a trilogy featuring Kosciusko, and the first of a series of books set in the same universe, opens with Kosciusko arriving at Fleet Orientation Station Medical, about to begin his training.

An Exchange of Hostages – and its direct sequels Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgment – takes place in an interstellar polity called the Jurisdiction. It is a lexocracy, ruled by a Bench comprising half a dozen Judges. The Bench makes the law and Fleet enforces it. As a regime, it is not very stable, and it’s hinted that rebellion and insurrection are common. There are also numerous mentions of “classes” of hominids. This universe may be populated by humans but they are not all the same.

A Writ to Inquire permits the holder to use torture – physical or pharmacological – in order to interrogate a suspect, to extract a confession or to punish an admitted felon. By law, all Inquirers must be medically trained. Except one of the Judges is trying to work his way round this and has sent a clerk of court to Fleet Orientation Station Medical to be trained. Mergau Noycannir is a nasty piece of work. She resents Kosciusko for his high birth, and she resents that fact she is only going to earn a Writ to Inquire because of politics. Unfortunately, her lack of medical training works against her – but for Fleet Orientation Station Medical to fail Noycannir would upset her patron, First Secretary Verlaine of Chilleau Judiciary, and that could have unfortunate consequences for the station and its personnel. However, Kosciusko’s tutor and the station administrator come up with a cunning plan. Kosciusko, it seems, has a side-speciality in pharmacology, and he can design a catalogue of drugs which Noycannir can use instead of more physical tools of torture.

Complicating matters are the presence of “bond-involuntaries”. In some cases, a Bench may in lieu of execution or imprisonment sentence a felon to indentured service with Fleet for thirty years. To ensure their commitment, they are fitted with “governors”, which strictly limit what they can think and do. Attempting to attack an officer, for example, would result in extreme pain. Each student torturer at the station has a bond-involuntary as batman/security guard. Kosciusko’s background as a prince of a powerful house in a feudal culture means his treamtent of bond-involuntaries leads to strong feelings of personal loyalty.

Despite being a torturer, Kosciusko does occasionally feel a little too good to be true. He is a gifted doctor and torturer, and his background means his servants love him. It seems there is little he can do wrong – despite a strong moral aversion to actually being a torturer. There are pages and pages of angst after his training sessions. But he continues because he possesses an unshakeable sense of duty. His father has ordered him to serve with Fleet as a Chief Medical Officer, and even if it means maiming and killing prisoners for information – which is often already known, so he’s after either confirmation or confession; even if he strongly believes that Bench punishments are often far more severe than the crime deserves… despite all this, he strives to overcome his personal feelings and complete his training. Further, his relationship with his bond-involuntaries (he gains a second one halfway through the book) does occasionally drift close to homo-eroticism. Despite all that, he’s a well-drawn and fascinating character, and it’s to Matthews’ credit that she has made him sympathetic – despite his career. The setting too is interesting, with just enough of a change to commonplace things to make it appear slightly alien.

The plot of An Exchange of Hostages is perhaps its weakest element – though, to be fair, this is not unexpected given that it describes Kosciusko’s studies to become a torturer. Matthews has livened it up a little with the aforementioned political shenanigans surrounding Noycannir, but the end result of that is never really in doubt. A second plot-thread concerns a secret Kosciusko inadvertently discovers about the training sessions. While this proves more satisfying, it is resolved some two-thirds of the way through the story. In effect, An Exchange of Hostages is extended set-up. But it’s well-drawn, well-written set-up, and makes for a fascinating read.

It continues to surprise me that Susan R Matthews’ novels are not better known. Between 1997 and 2002, she published five novels set in the Jurisdiction universe. There was then a four year gap before another appeared. Unfortunately, this last was published by Meisha Merlin, which subsequently went bust. Since then, there has been nothing – though Matthews’ website does say she has delivered the next book in the series to her agent. Her website also reveals that seven books were planned in the Kosciusko series. Three have yet to see print. I’ve been eagerly awaiting them for almost a decade.