REVIEW: Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan
A short author’s note at the start of the book establishes that we’re rejoining Kakeshi Kovacs, the protagonist of Altered Carbon, 30 years later, and introduces an important piece of tech in this Universe: Digital Personality Storage. I fell in love with this concept reading Greg Egan. The sections are introduced with a quote from this Universe’s history. I fell in love with this technique the first couple times I read Frank Herbert’s Dune. One sentence into the first chapter and I’m hooked.
An Envoy is a near mythical cross between a Zen Master, a Delta Commando and a Sociopath. They’re rightly feared as the fiercest fighters in the Universe. They’re used as a boogie man to scare the kiddies. And we have one as a first person narrator, a jaded ex-Envoy mercenary. Hyper-observant, Kovacs’ mental gymnastics are as impressive as his physical fighting skills.
Broken Angels stands on it’s own as a novel, but some of my favorite paragraphs are dense non-spoiler flashbacks that will leave you aching to read Altered Carbon, if you haven’t yet.
But that was back on Earth, and Earth is a place straight out of precolonial-period experia flick. For a while there I’d even thought I was in love and, motivated by love and hate in about equal proportions, I’d done some stupid things. A part of me had died on Earth.
I particularly like that this showed up over 50 pages into the story with little other mention of Kovacs’ past distracting the story.
Morgan jumps from sub-genre to sub-genre, rendering the characters, environment and violence in each with grace and economy of language. He gives us the noir we enjoyed in Altered Carbon. Virtual environments are used for everything from sex to reconnaissance. The exploration of religion give hints of what we might expect from Morgan if he were to delve into fantasy. But the meat of the story is a Stargate episode on steroids. The artifacts from an ancient, advanced, dead race also bring to mind Arthur C. Clarke, but when mixed with the commando team, I can’t keep Stargate out of my mind. He garnishes this literary cocktail with some experimental intelligent nano-tech.
Even with so much great science fiction in the mix, the horrors of war and our ultra-violent narrator do their best to drown everything else in blood. The books Morgan acknowledges at the in the front of the novel and the following quote point quite vividly that he means all of this to be taken as something other than a simple glorification of violence.
War has a soothing, simplifying effect on politics that must hit the politicians like a betathanatine rush. You don’t have to balance the issues anymore, and you can justify anything. Fight and win, and bring the victory home.
More than anything I was impressed at how satisfying the last dozen pages of the book were. If I were assigning stars to my reviews, Broken Angels would get about 1/2 a star more than Altered Carbon, and I’m not sure there’s enough room on the top end for them. This is heady stuff, and I’d only warn off those with a low tolerance for violence.
[update 2008-07-15] This review has been republished on Adventures in SciFi Publishing