An Exchange of Hostages

I finished another book from my experimental pile, An Exchange of Hostages by Susan Matthews, 1997. This is the first book in a protagonist-oriented (that is to say, it is primarily a character study) series about Andrej Koscuisko, a dual surgeon/torturer in an inquistion-themed future. Already a brilliant surgeon at the start,  the book details his largely unwilling training as a torturer, divided into nine ascending Levels. The first is simple verbal abuse, and the last few are pretty damn nasty.

The question the book proffers is if it is possible to be a moral or ethical torturer, with Koscuisko offered as a palpable maybe. It’s not clear. He’s a complicated fellow. On one hand he is philosophically opposed to torture, but he does it, forced to by a family and society that has carved out his career path for him. He actively avoids inflicting unnecessary pain to his prisoners, but he discovers fairly early on in his training that he’s a sadist and that he derives professional pleasure from his job. And as if he didn’t have enough issues, he’s forced to take on a personal slave (the book calls them ‘bond-involuntaries’, a catchy bit of Orwellianism) that comes to admire his restraint. In short, people, including his victims, tend to admire him, perhaps as he is the best available person in a throughly mad society. Does that make a moral torturer? Maybe. I can see why there’s a blub by Stephen Donaldson on the back, as he pretty much patented making readers uncomfortable with a protagonist.

I kept trying to fit the book into a genre or find a parallel, without much success. It reminded me of Ender’s Game with the progression through morally questionable training, but the book ends suddenly with graduation instead of the grand prolonged denouncement that Card delivers. The dystopian psychological  manuevering and the style in which it was written reminded me a little of Dune, especially the sections told from the perspective of K’s fellow student, who fancies herself a master manipulator but consistently misreads every situation she’s in. But it’s too small-scale. Donaldson’s Covenant is close, but K is far too decisive and centered to be compared to the Unbeliever.

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