duskpeterson: An apprentice builds a boat as a man looks on. (apprentice)
[personal profile] duskpeterson
It has been eleven years since the previous volume was published in this science fiction series about a guilt-ridden judicial torturer. It was worth the wait.

Susan R. Matthews has possessed the misfortune of having her Under Jurisdiction series tossed from press to press. Baen Books, her latest publisher, has done her series justice. It has reissued the previous six books in the series as DRM-free ebooks and as two omnibus paperbacks. And now comes the last - and, in certain ways, the finest - volume in the long tale of a most unusual protagonist: "Blood Enemies."


DARKNESS, LIGHT, AND CHARACTERS

The first thing that any reader of the Under Jurisdiction series has to accept is the same thing that any reader of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series has to accept: really bad things are going to happen to really nice people.

But there the comparison ends, for instead of simply racking up a high body count, Ms. Matthews's series centers emotionally on the people who were saved: the ones who could have undergone these atrocities, but didn't, because someone cared enough to intervene.

"Blood Enemies" starts grimly with scenes of religious terrorism that are even more topical now than they were when Ms. Matthews introduced this subject into the series through a novel published (by coincidence) just three weeks after 9/11. The third scene of "Blood Enemies" introduces Andrej Koscuisko to new readers.

"Prince inheritor to the Koscuisko familial corporation, one of the oldest, among the richest, in the Dolgorukij Combine. Judicial officer still in custody of a Writ to Inquire . . ."

Andrej is the test. Andrej is always the test. If a reader can make it through a scene in which Andrej's dark side is showing itself, without wanting to hire someone to kill Andrej and spare the universe his all-too-talented presence, then a minute mote of compassion will begin, which may or may not end in the reader loving Andrej and his struggles of conscience.

"[He'd] seen Koscuisko at work in Secured Medical, seen him blind staggering drunk with an ecstasy of dominion when he'd established lordship in the torture-rooms; blind staggering drunk with near-lethal quantities of overproof wodace when he'd come out of Secured Medical and started to remember that he was a doctor and a man who had been decent and kind, once of a time."

But Andrej is not the only character worth watching in this novel. An impressive number of interesting characters make their way across the stage, including a polite terrorist, a snarky ex-slave, a spaceship captain who was bred to obey laws (she failed spectacularly in that department), a secret service agent who belongs to a religious order, and a security chief who was living a pleasant enough life until he had the misfortune to fall in love with Andrej Koscuisko. Who, incidentally, never has sex with men.


PLOTLINES

From my perspective, this isn't a flawless novel. There are no less than three points in the book where bad things happen to good people in order to save many more good people from suffering evil. If one accepts this "end justifies the means" philosophy (and Ms. Matthews makes it easier by having the victims be willing and fully conscious of the sacrifice they are making), then one must also believe that no viable alternative to the bad things exists.

And I'm afraid that was where my suspension of disbelief failed me. I just kept feeling that a five-minute conversation in private, or a delay of a single day ("For heaven's sake, couldn't he plead a headache while he plots his escape?" I found myself muttering at one point), would resolve everything. It's quite possible, of course, that I missed the reasons why these bad things absolutely had to happen. But if I, a long-time reader of the series, missed such clues, it's all too likely that some new readers did as well. Which is a shame, because much of the book hinges on those decisions.

Ms. Matthews's plot structure is unusual too. One classic way of plotting an SF adventure is to start with a battle, retreat to the backstory, and then build your way up to a larger battle before ending with a quick denouement. "Blood Enemies" does all this, and then ends in the lengthiest denouement I have ever seen after a climactic battle. This appears to be a mistake.

It isn't. Not only are those ending chapters needed because this is the last book in a long series, but the series has never really been about battle scenes (though there are plenty of those). It has been about Andrej and his relations to others: the security team assigned to him, whom he has sought to protect; his family, who are a whole battle scene unto themselves; his crewmates, whom he keeps off-balance; his prisoners, whom he often fights to save; and, ultimately, the entire known universe. Andrej's heart is expansive, which requires an equally expansive ending to tie up the many storylines in the series.

It's not an easy book for new readers to plunge into, toward the end of the series. There are dozens of characters, nearly all with backstories. I'm tempted to advise, "Start at the beginning." On the other hand, Ms. Matthews did rather too good a job at presenting Andrej in his darkest form during the first two novels of the series. I've known more than one reader who dropped out of the series at the start, simply because they couldn't get through those two novels. But if you possess the strength to make it through quite a few scenes in Secured Medical (or if, like me, you possess a taste for nail-biting suspense), then I'd recommend that you start the series at the beginning, because you'll most fully appreciate the final chapters of "Blood Enemies" when you have witnessed how the characters reached that point.

If you decide to tackle "Blood Enemies" first because you feel you need lighter fare to start with ("lighter" being a relative term where this series is concerned), then you'll find that Susan R. Matthews and her publisher have done a fine job of bringing new readers up to speed: there is a summary of past plotlines in the introduction, a timeline of past novels at the end, and a list of characters from this novel that shows at what point those characters entered the series. The most helpful aid, though, is Ms. Matthews's custom of alternating between a paragraph of dialogue and a paragraph of thought, in which the character expands inwardly upon what he has just said. It's like having an interpreter at your side.


WORLD-BUILDING

Ms. Matthews's characterization and plotting are so skilled that it's tempting to end this review with them. But that would leave out the world-building.

Where shall I begin? With the detailed descriptions of alien food and drink that are scattered throughout the novel? With the futuristic medical technology? With the space military regulations, compiled by an author who was in the military? Or perhaps I should start with the various language syntaxes which are so exquisite that, I swear, one of these days I will begin dreaming in Andrej's dialect.

But I think what I need to talk about are the characters' cultures, because the challenges of diversity have been front and center throughout the series. I have not been keeping track of how many characters of color there are in the series, but it really doesn't matter, because the series is set in a universe full of different hominids (and the occasional non-hominid), and within each hominid class there are different races and ethnicities.

The potentials for conflict are exponential. And the series in no way diminishes the reasons why such conflicts would arise. One of the funniest and acutely discomfiting scenes in "Blood Enemies" is when the ship's officer named Two - who is not a giant bat, as she keeps trying to impress upon her hominid shipmates - reflects on the many ways in which hominids simply do not make sense.

Andrej (who is the test case, remember) enters into all this with a family heritage of racial prejudice and all the dark desire in the world to back that bigotry. And then he confounds everyone he meets by refusing to do the obvious. He does not abuse the slaves assigned to him (at least, not when he is in his right mind), he does not treat other races as scum, and he is impatient to a most dangerous degree - dangerous for his enemies, that is - with anyone who pursues ethnic or racial cleansing. He is a torturer who stands ready to fight for the innocent.

Which brings us to the dilemma Andrej finds himself in during this novel. I will not spoil the surprise by saying how he resolves his dilemma.


RELATIONSHIPS

One last topic I feel I must address, though I doubt that it will be one which would occur to most readers. It demonstrates Ms. Matthews's literary courage that she has never dropped this topic during the series, despite a distinct lack of societal interest in the subject.

I refer to male romantic friendship, also known as classical friendship, homoromantic love, or (as "Blood Enemies" puts it) passionate masculine friendship. It's rare for a post-1950 novel to refer to this topic. I've never before encountered an entire series that places romantic friendship at the heart of the series, making romantic friendship more important than any of the well-portrayed sexual relationships. Under Jurisdiction begins with a tender portrayal of romantic friendship, it continues with Andrej bonding himself in "romantic masculine friendship" with various men, and the series ends this topic in a most satisfying manner.

Contrast this with the treatment doled out to Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel "The Eagle of the Ninth" when it was adapted to film in 2011. The screenwriter of "The Eagle" did full justice to the romantic friendship plotline in the novel, but when interviewed, one of the actors made a snide joke about being forced to act in a bromance.

Anyone who has read classical and medieval literature knows that romantic friendship is a great deal more than an Internet meme about a Trudeau/Obama bromance. Few contemporary authors have managed to recreate the timeless appeal of romantic friendship; Susan R. Matthews is at top of her form in doing this.


FINALE

It has been twenty years since the series started, and much has changed in this world during that time. I underwent a moment of readerly dissonance when Andrej texted someone in "Blood Enemies"; texting was unknown to most Americans when the series began in 1997. During all these years, Under Jurisdiction has been one of those series whose reputation has spread through reader recommending it to fellow reader; I was introduced to Under Jurisdiction when a reader at a fan fiction convention handed the first novel to me as a gift.

It would have been a great failure for the science fiction genre if no press had chosen to issue the climactic volume of so strong a series. Baen Books is to be complimented for taking a chance on the series and for introducing Under Jurisdiction to a new readership.

October 2017

S M T W T F S
1234567
89 10 11121314
15 16 1718192021
22232425262728
293031    

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Oct. 22nd, 2017 02:55 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios