Prisoner 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.