Broken Angels - Richard Morgan

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Broken Angels
Richard Morgan
ISBN: 0575073241 (Amazon link)

I've been waiting for this one; the author's first novel, Altered Carbon came out to great hype, but also great praise last year.

Altered Carbon was basically a noir murder mystery with the role of gumshoe in this ultra-violent universe going to Takeshi Kovacs, a Envoy - a fearsome diplomat/spec ops type of agent. Kovacs is retired, and harbours bitter memories and a grudge. So far, so standard. Then Kovacs gets killed in the first section. The SFnal part of the setting is the stack; a little implant that enables the wearer to re-sleeved into a new body. It's an idea that Morgan gets considerable mileage from. The main thing people probably take away from this novel is the shocking levels of violence; this is about the same level as Matthew Woodring Stover's Heroes Die.

I like violence. Spices up a novel no end. However, YMMV.

In his sequel Morgan branches out a bit. The first novel was basically a murder mystery in an near-future Earth setting. This second novel is where the author takes us into the more exotic bits of his universe - we are going to meet the Martians (not really Martians, but ruins found there first) whose technology Earth is now trying to scavenge. We do this by virtue of dropping into a messy war, with lots of corporate involvement. Kovacs is an amiable, if scary and grumpy, hero to show us around, and Morgan enjoys throwing us right into the action immediately.

The plot revolves around an old classic - during this nasty little war Kovacs the mercenary is approached by someone who knows of
a little something on planet that would be worth a lot to one of the corporates - how does he fancy a slice?
What follows is classic boys' SF:
Big dumb object? Check - alien starship.
Aliens? Check - complete with scary wings. Bats/angels imagery abounds.
Cool toys? Check -including nano.
Big guns and bigger explosions? Check - we're doing Kelly's Heroes by way of Revelation Space here.

This is however a very character driven novel; okay, with plot a close second. The many and varied characters involved in this little scheme end up as a sort of Dirty Dozen meets Indiana Jones bunch, and they drop onto the planet to secure the asset for their corporate sponsors. It's a measure of the harsh feel of this book that they do so by nuking a nearby city to drive people away, and they drop in knowing that their current bodies ('sleeves') are going to die from the rad-damage. Oh, and there's a nice touch of voodoo (including a very effective scene where the dirty dozen are selected at the Soul Market...).

The writing is driven by plot; it's good, and has its moments, but mostly it's what's happening and what is being said, not how we're told about it. (cf the prose stylings of Gibson's latest which I read before this). However, things snap along well, and for a second novel the writing is great. The characters are more impressive, with the thoroughly lively ensemble cast being well drawn, and few of them are without interest somewhere along the way. Things get nicely complex near the end, with almost everyone turning into a Cherryh hero by then - tired, injured, radiation sick, working on partial information and able to trust no-one etc.

All in all this is a very fine book, with some excellent moments. The feel of things might be a turn off for some people, but the ultra-violence of the setting and main hero isn't teenage milSF power fantasy - Kovacs is a tired and bitter operative and the whole thing is very far from James Bond; much of the novel has Kovacs railing against the stupidity of the ground war being fought. Equally, the trappings might draw the milSF crowd in for the filmic effects, but I think they'll stay for the gripping plot.

One word of caution: I do think this should be read after Altered Carbon. There's little plot carryover, but Kovacs' background and the issues raised by the stacks are not covered at the start of Broken Angels.

Recommended noir action-SF on a grand canvas.

Aside: I have Morgan in the same mental box (badly labelled 'those new British SF authors') as Neal Asher, John Meaney, & Alastair Reynolds. I'd suggest trying Morgan if you like any of the above. I'd also suggest Stover fans might find Kovacs' life and attitude to their liking.

Posted: Sun - March 23, 2003 at 08:04 PM