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Prisoner of Conscience
Susan Matthews
Avon EOS Books, 312 pages

Prisoner of Conscience
Susan Matthews
Susan Matthews grew up across the US and in Europe and India. While in the US Army, she served as the operations and security officer of a combat support hospital. She works as an auditor for The Boeing Company and recently graduated from Seattle University with an MBA in accounting. She lives in Seattle.

Susan Matthews Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

Let me start by saying that I really wanted to like Prisoner of Conscience. After all, the summary on the book cover sounded like a terrific premise:

"Andrej Koscuisko is an Inquisitor for the Bench federation of worlds. It is his duty to root out -- quickly, efficiently, quietly -- anyone who would threaten the ruling order. Although an Inquisitor is not supposed to feel outrage, weakness or pity, Andrej is, above all, a man of honor. And now he must risk his career -- and perhaps his life -- exposing the truth that lies behind the black walls of Domitt Prison."
In my mind, I thought an Inquisitor would be like an Investigator, as in Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series -- a cool, calm, professional troubleshooter brought in to uncover the truth, no matter what it takes. Susan Matthews' Inquisitors, unfortunately, are just that. Professional torturers, operating under a specific Writ, which allows them to carry out their profession. While Matthews attempts to make us like Koscuisko and empathize with his character, the whole concept just doesn't work for me. A society where interstellar space travel is a reality and it still resorts to physical torture? Instead of psychic probes, mind-altering chemicals, or virtual reality assisted interrogation, Inquisitors use thumb screws, whips and flails? Add slavery and concentration camps into the mix and you get a thoroughly unpleasant story which I had a tough time finishing.

The book opens with a scene on Koscuisko's ship where a Security detail manages to stop a group of saboteurs from destroying the ship. The consequences of this action are not seen until the very end of the book. Then we see Koscuisko releasing a prisoner's bonds -- one of the scenes which is supposed to make us aware of the fact that Koscuisko is a man of principles. Unauthorized torture is not permitted, and Koscuisko releases the prisoner because Charges have not been brought against this man. Yet he must do this secretly, which is a source of confusion for me. Matthews has set up an elaborate system of authorized torture with very strict rules, and yet when one of her Inquisitors finds an injustice, he cannot openly correct it. She reveals later that it is a matter of politics that prevents him from doing so, yet his inability to correct this injustice openly points to the flawed system. In her words:

"It was Koscuisko's responsibility to work through the holding areas, the ad hoc cells set aside to hold the Nurail identified as prisoners as well as deportees. There was a difference -- deportees were subject to privation and dehumanization, but they could not be put to torture merely because they were no longer to be permitted to die on their own land."
To continue, Koscuisko is temporarily assigned to Domitt Prison, to carry his Writ of Torture there. Accompanying him are his security patrol, a group of bond-involuntaries, conditioned prisoners who have been fitted with a "governor" that inflicts pain when they disobey their master. Koscuisko evidently treats his bond-involuntaries better than most, but slavery is still slavery. When one is killed during an attack when Koscuisko first arrives, his show of grief is yet another plot device to make us believe that he is different than the system of which he is a part.

To summarize the rest of the book, Koscuisko discovers that the Warden of Domitt Prison has been using prisoners as slave labor and carrying out unauthorized torture. It takes him a while to find out all the details, and more prisoners die in the meantime. During his investigation we are subjected to descriptions of torture, abuse and a gruesome description of a man being burned alive in a furnace. When he finally puts all the pieces together, again we see the flawed system. Even though he has evidence, he is in danger of being replaced. His replacement would result in the invalidation of the evidence and Charges which he was going to file. But in the end, he reports the failure of Writ and the military comes in and cleans up the mess. At the end of the book, his bond-involuntaries are freed of their bondage, because of their actions which saved the ship in the very beginning of the book. And he buys the sex slave who was provided to him at the prison, sets her up with a house and asks her to pray for the bond-involuntary who died in the attack on him for the remainder of her Bond, the next twenty years. A contrived ending, to say the least.

There are many things I didn't like about this book but I'll hit a few of the major points.
One, Matthews' book is all about the Bench, the Writ of Torture and Inquisitors, but nowhere does she explain the whole system of "justice". There are references to different levels of Interrogation but no clear picture of what crimes warrant what levels. The use of speaksera (truth serum?) is mentioned but either its use is not allowed or not common. In any case, no rationale is supplied as to why physical torture is still in use in a society with advanced technology. Inexcusable in my mind, as this is part of the basis of this book.
Two, the book begins with weights and measures being measured in "eights". My first thought was that maybe this race had only 8 fingers, yet I could find no reference to this anywhere. Indeed, later in the book, this convention seemed to disappear (or maybe I stopped noticing).
Third, and this is a really minor point, there are references to drinks which gave me no indication what they were: shurla?, rhyti? Was he drinking an alcoholic drink, a coffee, a hot cocoa, a fruit drink? Just one more bit of confusion.

To sum up, I really can't recommend this book. The protagonist is not someone who you can really cheer for, and the plot is weak and confused. The whole premise is flawed, physical torture amidst the high technology of interstellar flight and a supposedly powerful individual, the Inquisitor, who has very little power to correct injustice. The threads of torture, slavery and concentration camps running through the story add to the unpleasantness of the book. I suggest that you give Susan R. Matthews' Prisoner of Conscience a pass and patronize one of the other new, promising authors out there.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy àla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.

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