An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R. Matthews
Didn’t somebody want a Magical Sadist book, to go along with the Magical Masochist Kushiel books? Here you go!
Andrej Koscuisko, a brilliant young neurosurgeon fresh out of medical school, is ordered by his father to join the military and enter training to become a Ship’s Surgeon. But a Ship’s Surgeon’s primary occupation is not to heal the sick – it is to torture confessions out of prisoners. The idealistic Koscuisko is initially disgusted by this, as well as his discovery, upon entering training, that he has been assigned a slave, the stoic warrior Joslire, whose obedience to him is enforced via a cybernetic implant. However, as he gets deeper into his training, he discovers in himself a less-than-wholesome fascination for his work.
This book is an exercise in the clinical deconstruction of a fetish. While Koscuisko and Joslire’s relationship is a big ball of angsty UST, most of the book takes place in decidely non-sexy, and frequently worrying, debates about the ethics of the book’s government’s legal system. They’re worrying because the book wants there to be more moral gray here than there actually is.
The debates mostly take the form of conversations in the Torture Class classroom, between Koscuisko and his tutor Chonis and fellow student Mergau Noycannir, explaining the legal system’s justifications for what it does, and outside of it, in their internal monologues either accepting it (mostly Noycannir) or arguing against it (mostly Koscuisko and Joslire).
These aren’t simple shouty discussions. They’re very long, sometimes giving the sense that Matthews is trying to drown what’s actually happening in a sea of irrelevant detail. And they’re very serious, and pay a fair amount of attention to what kind of the social environment makes plausible an ethical system that permits torture and slavery. It’s kinda like The Brothers Karamazov, if The Brothers Karamazov was about BDSM spaceships.
I would say that the book doesn’t actually want to justify torture and slavery as a general practice. It’s funny how I can’t say that for sure! But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. What it does want to do, however, is justify Koscuisko’s use of torture and slavery. The narrative spends a lot of time establishing why he feels he has to do as his father tells him, and his motivations make sense psychologically.
But the fact that his personal system of honor requires that he hurt undeserving people does not make him a good person. The “Your right to swing your arm ends at my nose” rule is not difficult to apply here – it’s pretty clear where Koscuisko’s arm ends and his victims’ noses start.
The book seems to agree that a person who behaves the way Koscuisko does is not exactly a hero – but the story requires him to be a hero. So, it turns out that Koscuisko a Magical Special Torturer, the bestest Torturer ever, who never extracts false confessions and always uses the minimum force necessary, and whose victims love him after. What he does is okay, because if he didn’t do it, some other crappier Torturer would! And all the slaves on the ship are in love with him by the end of the book.
This is an well-written book, but also a very, very unpleasant one, both because of the material and because of the way it decides to deal with it.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
This is only the second Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read – I’d heard of it before I read it, forgotten the title, and realized which one it was very quickly. (Shouldn’t have read the back cover blurbs.)
This is another book that feels a lot like an exercise to me. It’s a very tight book, with no real space to develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters. I don’t think my opinion matters here, but for what it is, I think it’s great – there are only a couple of places that don’t feel “fair” to me, and I don’t usually care whether a mystery’s “fair.”
I, uh, can’t talk about this book any more specifically without spoiling it, sorry.