An Exchange of Hostages by Susan R. Matthews (1997)
When I read the blurb on the back about a surgeon who’s in training to be a High Inquisitor, someone who tortures people, I didn’t think I’d read much of the book before putting it down. Torturers? Inquisitors? A space-faring government called the Judiciary who looks for rebels and criminals under every rock and extracts “legal” confessions from them?
Andrej, forced to become a fleet inquisitor to inherit his father’s title, is young, full of himself, and reluctant to become a torturer. Assigned to a Tutor to instruct him through the stages of interrogation (from stern language to death), Andrej thinks he can beat the system and keep his humanity.
His only fellow student, Mergau, is a government clerk without any medical background. Her only goal is to obtain the authority to kill people for her boss’s political gain. Andrej is assigned a manservant, a criminal with a governor installed in his brain during his time as a slave/prisoner. The overbearing government classifies “criminals” loosely. One of Andrej’s first live exercises is to interrogate a man who has stolen flour genetically refined for the elite. Andrej, unlike typical students, befriends his manservant, an honorable man treated as a sex slave, furniture, and whipping boy by earlier students.
We watch as Andrej becomes more comfortable with his role as a inquisitor, leaving his compassion behind and becoming a little turned on by the blood and pain he’s causing. His confidence in overturning the system is knocked out of him when he figures out who the school is using as “criminals” and he almost kills an innocent man.
Crushed and wanting to help, he treats the young man he’s interrogating and Mergau’s subject who she kicked him in the head until he lapsed into a coma. Mergau, helped through her exams by Andrej’s poisons, convinces her boss that Andrej would be more useful as his pawn instead of working for fleet.
The Tutor and his superiors see what’s happening and accelerate Andrej’s progressions through the levels, almost destroying Andrej. With the help of his manservant and the young man he almost killed, he survives long enough to make it off the school and into fleet.
Why would anyone read such a dark and horrible tale? Because it’s so darn well written, and Andrej’s struggle with his own demons really brings the story to life. Every time he loses a piece of his soul, so does the reader. He has to somehow balance the violence he’s committing with alleviating the pain of others around him. I couldn’t help root for him in spite of his bloody, week-long interrogations. I cried when he saved the young man he’d beaten and the other involuntary bondsmen showed up to escort him.
This isn’t torture porn. Far from it. It’s about one man’s struggle to survive in a dark and evil world. I really wanted to hate him but found myself hoping he’d make it to fleet and maybe make some changes in his world.
I understand there’s a Judiciary series, but I think I need to read something light and fluffy before I continue.