An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R. Matthews

Avonova, 1997, 372 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78913-2

Do you trust cover blurbs?

Most of the time, I do. I tend to stick with publishers who know what their audience expect, so I’m rarely disappointed by the relation between plot summary blurbs and actual novel content (a pleasant exception are Robert J. Sawyer’s novels, when you get more in the book than what is presupposed by the blurb, but I digress…) (Cover illustrations are another entirely different thing, but I’ll stop talking about that right now lest I begin to digress again…)

But do you trust author’s comments on book covers? (“Good” -Author Nonymous) Here, the situation’s more complex, depending on your gullibility quotient, you appreciation of Author Nonymous, and all that’s in between. But most of the time, you can get clues. If there’s something like (“I loved it” -Saddam Hussein), then…

(Book reviewers can also extract useful pointers for their reviews by re-reading other people’s comments… but it’s not like I do that… ahem… oh, seems like I’m digressing again!)

So when you see something like (“Susan R. Matthews simply doesn’t flinch” -Stephen R. Donaldson), you just know that you’re holding potentially nauseous material. Donaldson, renowned as the author of some of the most displeasing cycles around (The Gap cycle, the Chronicles of Thomas the Uncovenant, etc…) calling Matthews unflinching? A bit like: Pot to Kettle; “Hey wow, I like your shade of black!”

So what is An exchange of Hostages? At the core, it’s yet another one of those “training-camp” novels, like Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game and shelves of other SF books. Who says training camp also says “personal development” novel, and so An Exchange of Hostages is the story of Andrej Koscuisko, heir to an empire and “promising young surgeon”. At the beginning of the story, he enters (against his will, but what can you say when your daddy’s the Big Boss?) an academy where they train Ship Inquisitors. In other words, he’s going to learn the fine art of… torture.


While at this point some readers are hurtling the book against a wall, others are raising the objection that a civilized galactic empire can’t expect to use torture as a formal part of their judiciary system. While that’s an excellent objection, it’s also irrelevant: An Exchange of Hostages is one of those stories (much like fantasy-type allegories) which depend on a single assumed factor. You either swallow it or you don’t.

This is an extraordinarily powerful novel. As his training advances, Koscuisko will find out that his training and skills as surgeon at first hinder, then facilitate his progress. Much like the reader, he will be disgusted by the tasks he’ll be asked to performed, then achieve a more jaded outlook. Along the way, he will make unexpected friends. The protagonist’s relation with his personal slave is one of the surprises of the novel.

It’s never a pleasing story. But it’s engrossing reading. Despite all my preconceptions, I found myself devouring pages after pages, finding out more about Kocuisko’s fate. As a novel, An Exchange of Hostages would be more or less unremarkable if it wasn’t for the special nature of the training camp. As such, I expect opinion to be sharply polarized around the novel, with definite camps for or against it.

In view of this, the only recommendation I can give is that you have to like hard edges, uncompromising plot-lines and quiet, character-driven SF to like this one. Even then, I think a lot of potential readers will abandon the book before completing it. It remains to be seen what else Matthews will write next.

[April 1998: Prisoner of Conscience is the second book in Matthews’s series about a doctor-cum-torturer in an interstellar empire heavily dependant on this form of… interrogation. The first volume, An Exchange of Hostages wasn’t for squeamish readers, but was an interesting bildungsroman with well-defined characters, an engrossing plot and a few hard lessons. Prisoner of Conscience loses most of these attributes. The result is an excruciatingly long and uninvolving read. Following the rather trivial plot of this second book, I can see this series becoming something like an aimless eight-book series especially beloved by S&M enthusiasts. A plot should back up Matthews’s bloodlust, or else it’s just torture for us as well as the characters. For me at least, the series probably stops here.]

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