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.