When a favourite author appends another book to a beloved series after a gap of ten years, I guess it’s OK to have doubts. Thus I approached Blood Enemies (2017), Susan R. Matthews’ seventh novel in her stunning Jurisdiction cycle, with no little trepidation. Of course I had a few minor misgivings as to whether the quality of her writing might have dipped after such a long break in output, but mostly, my apprehension stemmed from the fact that the first six books formed such a coherent whole that Andrej Kosciusko’s story was complete, and that any move to open a new chapter on him was doomed to seem forced and be anticlimactic.
Reading the author’s recap did little to sooth me. What? Were they? Did that happen? Was it like that? Of course one’s recollection of stories read long ago (the sixth book, Warring States, came out in 2006) start to play tricks, but maybe Matthews also straightens out narratives that were more elliptical, and clarifies things that were rather more hinted at, back in the day.
It has always been a constant source of amazement to me that the Jurisdiction, indisputably one of the greatest galactic settings in all SF, is not better known. Beginning with the perfectly titled An Exchange of Hostages (1997), the series chronicles the travails of tortured torturer Andrej Kosciusko, as he strives to beat the system and provide a better life for the people around him.
Civilised space is divided into a number of ‘Judiciaries’ sponsored by corporations of powerful families. Kosciusko has the misfortune to be born into one of these (the Dolgorukij Combine) and thus, having graduated from medical school as an incredibly gifted physician, is forced by his martinet father to enrol in military torture school (Fleet Orientation Station Medical aka Fossum). From here, he will emerge as an ‘inquisitor,’ holding the writ to investigate transgressions against the state and enforce the rule of law.
This is the overall arc of the first book. Naturally Kosciusko excels in his new studies, due to his medical knowledge. Privately he oscillates between agonising over the position he finds himself in and drinking to forget that he is starting to enjoy the work. It’s a remarkable debut novel, one of the best. The whole thing is drenched in the politics of military rank, social caste and race within a milieu dripping with homoerotiscism, slavery and graphic torture. The only misstep is a ludicrously coy (heterosexual) group sex scene that (unfortunately) is pivotal to the narrative. Whilst one might charitably assign this to first-timer failure of nerve, what was her editor thinking?
An Exchange of Hostages is followed in rapid succession by Prisoner of Conscience (1998), Hour of Judgment (1999), Angel of Destruction (2001) and The Devil and Deep Space (2002). There is also a self-published chapbook Jurisdiction, that deals with events between the first two books. These volumes introduce many memorable supporting characters including Bench Specialist (= Jurisdiction special agent) Garol Vogel, a wonderfully loose cannon amidst all the rigidity, Jennet ap Rhiannon the straight-laced captain of the JSF Ragnarok and Andrej’s cousin Stanoczk, a Malcontent (= one of the order of gay monks that constitute the Dolgorukij intelligence service). The chronological order of these tales is a little blurred, but sorted out by the two omnibus reissues (Fleet Inquisitor and Fleet Renegade) that preceded publication of Blood Enemies.
As I pen this piece, I’m two thirds of the way through that book. Matthews deftly finds the one logical strand that could continue Andrej’s story – namely the dissolution of the Jurisdiction into a confederacy on foot of the failure to appoint a new judge (as detailed in Warring States) and the subsequent weakening of the rule of law. This in turn creates threats against Gonebeyond space, where Andrej is in hiding.
Having given his benign but stifling guardians the slip, Andrej has inadvertently walked in on a covert Malcontent operation to smash the terrorist ring run by one of his younger brothers. He’s forced to play for time by (slightly) faking the torture of captured cousin Stanoczk, working at his evil brother’s behest, while he tries to find a way to rescue the situation. Meanwhile, a third brother is poised with five Dolgorukij warships on a separate mission at the edge of Gonebeyond, waiting for word to invade and drag Andrej back to his homeworld. In other words, Matthews at her convoluted and conflicted best – I needn’t have worried at all. And another book, Fleet Insurgent, is in the pipeline. Joy!