Victor Gollancz / Orion Publishing
UK Hardcover First
Publication Date: 03-01-2003
400 Pages; £17.99
Date Reviewed: 02-10-03
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003
Richard Morgan's first novel, 'Altered Carbon', was a home run by any measure. In 'Broken Angels', he delivers a grand slam. 'Broken Angels' takes place in the universe of 'Altered Carbon', a 26th century where the human soul can be easily stored in a standard digital format and easily 're-sleeved' into new bodies. The first novel used this bit of new technology and age-old knowledge of the human heart to construct a compelling mystery in a fascinatingly imagined future. While Morgan's foreground story in 'Altered Carbon' was gripping and worthy of every white knuckle it inspired, the background was also quite compelling. Humanity has conquered the stars with the help of alien technology found in ruins on Mars. In 'Broken Angels', Morgan plunges into the dark heart of the Protectorate Universe and the Martian artifacts that make it possible. The knife is twisted in that heart of darkness, and what is produced from the eviscerated remains is nothing less than human, and something much more than the simply alien. The heart is a muscle and Morgan never lets you forget it.
For all the complexity of what's going on in 'Broken Angels', the plot it a bit more straightforward than that of 'Altered Carbon'. Takeshi Kovacs is serving as a mercenary on Sanction IV, where he's fighting in the name of the Corporations to help put down a rebellion led by Joshua Kemp. While recovering from a wound in an orbital hospital, he's approached with a hard to resist offer. Kovacs, Jan Schneider and archaeologue Tanya Wardani are going to lead a team of mercenaries to attempt to recover an artifact that will make them rich and powerful beyond their wildest dreams. If they can make it out alive.
Morgan does great character work here of a very different type than what we saw in 'Altered Carbon'. He preserves the same ultra-tough voice, but this time he's talking war and aliens. His insights into war are brutal, powerful and timeless. He's capable of the kind of dialogue and writing that you'll actually stop and re-read. His writing about the war that looms ever in the background of this novel and occasionally erupts into the foreground is perfectly suited for battles five centuries ago, today or five centuries hence. He's filled with a seething anger that makes it seem as if the characters and the writer want to grab the reader by the throat and scare the shit out of them.
"...He cleared his throat. 'I had just. Assumed. You would want the command yourself.'
I saw the platoon again as the smart shrapnel barrage erupted overhead. Lightning flash, explosions and then the fragments, skipping and hissing hungrily through the quicksilver flashing curtain of the rain. Crackling of blaster discharge in the background, like something ripping.
What was on my face didn't feel like a smile, but evidently it was.
'What's so funny?'
'You've read my file, Hand.'
'And you still thought I wanted the command. Are you fucking insane?'"
Truer words were never spoken, and then s today, there's quite a bit of insanity in the vicinity of war. As usual, atomic weapons are held as the last measure of the desperately weak, and readers will get to see them used up close and more personally than they'd like. This is definitely a saber-rattling book for a saber-rattling world.
But Morgan goes well beyond the human and gets into visions of almost Lovecraftian terror as his characters encounter the alien and beyond. Don't expect your cuddly-little beetle-headed friends though. Morgan is nothing if not inventive and his aliens are a real change of pace from the usual insectoid menace. He knows enough to leave a large swath of darkness across the readers' and the characters' knowledge of the aliens. This is by no means the last word on the outsider influence in Morgan's universe. In fact, it's more certainly an opening salvo.
Corporate skullduggery is also in evidence, and some of the most striking portions of the novel result from attempts to sabotage the expedition. Morgan is smart enough to know that any sufficiently advanced technology can scare the hell out of even those who wield it. Not every alien creation the reader will encounter is of extraterrestrial origin.
The plot is fairly linear, and this includes the obligatory introduction of the mercenary team. In this respect, as in many others, Morgan is striking out in new territory and he handles it with the confidence of a seasoned pro. Kovacs' team is introduced in one of the best sequences in the novel, their souls having been purchased by the pound from the Voodoo King Semetaire, the man who runs the Soul Market. Morgan covers all the bases in 'Broken Angels', from religious relevance to alien inscrutability. He manages moments of quiet introspection, and more than a few scenes of skin-shredding violence. Those put off by the violence of the previous novel should not expect anything less in 'Broken Angels'.
What's most striking about this novel is Morgan's ability to bring the future right into the reader's present perceptions, to make it seem gritty enough so that it might almost already be behind us. And, yes, the pre-emptive nuclear strikes, the soldiers dying slowly of radiation sickness, the incomprehensible technology have all been seen in our world. Wisely, Morgan has reversed the effect of his previous novel. The subtleties of human interaction and the ugly realities of realpolitik are convincingly in the background, while the horrific realities of war and the anomalies of the alien are in the foreground. Morgan credits some studies of political violence in his acknowledgements. But reading alone cannot bring the conviction he brings to this novel. That's pure writing skill. In 'Broken Angels' Morgan serves it all up with a fist to the face and a subtle twist to the neck. You're dead; you're dead twice. Prepare to be resurrected. It won't be a pleasant experience but will be an informative one.