susan r. matthews
Published by Avon Books, 1998.

I admit I do not know this for a fact, but I suspect many readers do not enjoy serious depictions of torture, rape, forced relocation, slavery, subjugation, and characters who justify such a spectrum of atrocities with the entire weight of a societal moral system behind them. Much of the science fiction I have read tends to avoid meditating on such grim fare.

PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE is not most books, and the universe it presents is not like much science fiction I have read. It submerges its characters, its entire universe, deep in precisely such grim fare. And yet it is more than a pornography of misery, for it does not glory in these things, but presents a universe steeped in them which invites reflection. In the spirit of the “what if?” tradition of science fiction, it takes the question of torture and a morality other than ours, constructs a universe and culture and institutions and characters around it, and then story and plot build out of the resulting interactions.

The tale which consequently unravels is difficult, strange, and often-times confusing, as much of the society and characters are so contradictory to the values that I hold dear. The characters conscience such acts that I would consider unconscionable for any good person. And yet it becomes clear that they have their own code of honor and morality, their own balance of guilt and shame, their own boundaries and horror at acts which cross those boundaries.

The writing is well done, and possesses a quality of otherness that is elusive to describe: it does very well at presenting the world, the characters and their thoughts impartially, which contributes a great deal to the atmosphere of the book. The universe is detailed and atypical, and the characters are developed in depth. Still, the book is grim and depicts much unpleasantness, although it is not overly graphic in presenting it. But if that will not disturb you, then it may be an interesting read.

Cover Art Review: Confusing, and utterly unrelated to the story at hand. So, in many ways, a typical science fiction book cover.



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