Friday, August 10, 2007

Book Review: An Exchange of Hostages

I actually read this book when I was living in Clerksville, but Moe's Books had a copy and it had registered highly enough on my shelfworthiness scale to make me buy it. I'm not sure who originally recommended Matthews to me; I think it was Dylan.

This older and somewhat hard-to-find novel is worth reading, although you need a strong stomach. In what now seems like a prescient choice, it postulates a tyrannical interstellar government, the Jurisdiction, which uses torture as both interrogation technique and execution method. But to be an excellent torturer, one needs a nuanced understanding of the body. Under Jurisdiction, a "Ship's Inquisitor" is first trained as a physician. Most of you can see how this gets gory quickly.

Our protagonist, Andrej Koscuisko, is the scion of an aristocratic family and graduated with honors in neurosurgery and pharmacology. He is sent by his father, the family patriarch, to join the Fleet as a Ship's Inquisitor, a position of power. Resistance appears futile, and Andrej permits himself to be made part of the apparatus of oppression.

This is in effect a character study. A totalitarian system and patriarchal culture constrain Andrej's perceived choices until his persona inverts itself: The doctor who reassembled broken bodies becomes a dealer of pain and death. Agonizingly, Andrej learns that he enjoys his new work. Despite this, he still struggles to do good. He treats the station's bond-involuntaries with respect; his surgical skills save one and his adept manipulation of the law preserves another. His kills are clean. But this is rather faint praise, and Andrej is acutely conscious of his sin.

For comparison, Matthews also provides the points of view of Joslire Curran, Andrej's personal slave at the station, and Mergau Noycannir, an ambitious court clerk who has been put in the Inquisition program at the behest of her political master. Joslire, who escaped execution for undisclosed crimes only to be controlled for decades by a governor in his brain, has served many student-torturers before. The tiny current of decency in Andrej draws him in. In a life ruled by pain and cruelty, this may be enough to command loyalty. And loyalty Andrej will need; his skills inspire jealousy in Mergau, who lacks medical training. She is suspicious and hyperaggressive, but determined to provide her superior with a pet torturer, breaking the Fleet's monopoly. Andrej's cycle of sadism and guilt pales in comparison with her sociopathy, and the chapters using her point of view are appropriately suffocating.

If you are looking for an inspiring tale of rebellion against an evil government, this is not your book. But as an exploration of the consequences of imposing such a system, it shines. Recommended.
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