by Richard Morgan
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0575073268
Date: 17 March, 2005 List Price £10.9 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I feel hugely privileged to be reviewing Richard Morgan's fourth novel, Woken Furies, not only because it's absolutely brilliant, but also because I've been able to track Morgan's rise as an author during the time I've been writing for SFRevu (over five years now!). There was, I recall, a buzz about his debut novel Altered Carbon, one that I'd been hearing in various dark corners of the many London watering holes frequented by the British SF clique well before it was published. When I read it, I was totally blown away--here was a brutal and original voice, science fiction with a seriously good, bad ass attitude, and with Morgan's introduction of his anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs, hard man envoy and cynical killer, one knew that this was a writer (and indeed, a character) who was not going to fade away overnight. And so it has come to pass and I take no little glib satisfaction in the fact that Altered Carbon went on to win the 2004 Philip K. Dick award--this will not be the only accolade Morgan will lay claim to.
I was, it's true, a little cooler in my critique of Morgan's follow up novel, Broken Angels. There were various reasons for this - not least the notorious problems associated with second novels both in terms of the writer's execution and the reader's expectation. I do, however, stand by what I said at the time (links to my various reviews of Morgan's work and to my exclusive interview with the author can be found at the end of this review). The third Richard Morgan novel, Market Forces, was a departure from the universe of Kovacs, though it very much retained the writer's gutsy and aggressive approach in spades. A lad?s novel featuring fast cars and fast women, it had a fair dash of corporate criticism thrown in as well, certainly enough for it to resonate with those learned folk who put the Arthur C. Clark award shortlist together. The novel has been nominated for the 2004 prize, and Morgan now deservedly competes with some big name writers (including a number of previous Clark winners). He may even win!
Recently Morgan has moved into the world of the graphic novel--a perfect medium for his all-action, cinematic approach. His Black Widow comics, published by Marvel have received fantastic reviews, and his interest in that style of story-telling is very evident in his latest novel, Woken Furies, which, after such a long preamble, I suppose I should go on to talk about.
Woken Furies is the third Takeshi Kovacs novel, and I think, the best. It starts with as good an opening to a novel as I can remember--Morgan pumps adrenaline into the heart of the narrative right from the off, and for over four hundred pages, the pace never lets up. Central to these Kovacs novels is the concept of resleeving. In this far future, humans are all but immortal; their personalities can be backed up and uploaded into cortical stacks that can then be swapped into a body of one's choice. Such a luxury does not come cheap though and only the wealthier elements of human society can partake. This generally limits it to the idle rich, governments, the military and organized crime--all of which are key character elements to these novels.
It's fair to say that this idea as a genre story element is by no means an original one--it has been explored by any number of science fiction and fantasy writers--body switching features heavily in the works of people like Tim Powers for example--but Morgan's take on the whole thing is explored in depth, the various permutations and pitfalls examined closely and he uses the concept as a catalyst to drive his stories forward. The result is a breathless and exhilarating experience for the reader.
Kovacs, you may recall, is an envoy--part of an elite commando type unit used by The Protectorate (the ultimate ruling elite) to crush anything, anywhere that might event hint of insurrection. Envoys are the ultimate weapon, an unstoppable force, and Kovacs is amongst the very best--or he was, for he has now left the corps and is pursuing his own interests. He has returned to Harlan's World, his birthplace, after a hundred odd years and is now hard at work on a very personal vendetta. Being the complicated chap that he is, Kovacs' business generally involves a lot of indiscriminate murder and this in turn only serves to further complicate matters. Before long he learns that he himself is being hunted down by an assassin, and with a beautiful symmetry that Morgan creates through his ingenious exploration of the resleeving idea, it turns out that the assassin is Kovacs himself--an earlier backed-up Kovacs, commissioned by one of the many bad guy factions that inhabit Woken Furies to hunt down the 'true' one. It's a mind-bending idea and having introduced it very early on in the novel, Morgan patiently and brilliantly sidelines it in favour of other plot threads so that the pending confrontation is eagerly anticipated by the reader.
Meantime what happens is--Kovacs, having rescued a woman in a bar threatened by a bunch of religious fundamentalists for not wearing a yashmak (he does this, of course, in a traditionally gallant manner by brutally slaying the entire lot of them), he hooks up with this women, Sylvie Oshima, and her buddies, primarily because his current sleeve is badly injured and she tells him they can help him to a new one. Sylvie's gang are a mercenary deComm team, specializing in going into the Badlands of Harlan's World to bring down the wondering mimints, AI war machines that have been plaguing the area for a century or so. Sylvie's Slipins are a colourful lot, very much comic book archetypes in the mould of 2000 AD and they are, naturally, extremely suspicious of this newcomer.
At this point Woken Furies might happily settle into a story about Kovacs and his adventures with this unlikely band of brothers--and no doubt that would be a damn good read in it's own right, but Morgan would never lead the reader down such a predictable path. With Kovacs on Kovacs' tail, Woken Furies jinks and sidesteps time and time again.
Whilst out hunting the mimints down, Oshima falls ill, descending into a rambling incoherence boarding on coma. This is bad news, not least because the team relies on her expertise as their data-code specialist, but also because in her rare lucid moments, she is behaving very unlike her old self. This, of course, in this setting of downloadable personalities leads to any number of possible causes, and it's even worse when the personality that is apparently speaking through Sylvie's mouth seemingly belongs to the revolutionary legend Quellcrist Falconer, who was supposed to have been unambiguously killed over three hundred years ago.
And so this development sends Woken Furies in a new direction, one that re-ignites the passions of the old guard Harlan's World revolutionaries, who truly believe that their philosopher warrior leader has impossibly returned to them. And in the middle of all this is Takeshi Kovacs, his profound cynicism and loyalties severely tested by these circumstances.
How it all turns out, I'm not going to tell (obviously!), but I can tell you that this is one of the most brilliant and thrilling novels I've read in ages-- definitely one of the best books of the year, and yes, I know it's only March.
Morgan is a brave and audacious writer and there is definitely something of the philosopher warrior in him. Sure, he has a penchant for lurid sex scenes and graphic violence (come on! don't we all?), but these impulses are tempered, perhaps even contextualised by a deep insight into the world of his novels. He seems able to continually find new angles on his concept of resleeving--I love the idea that though we know that the Assassin Kovacs is hunting down the protagonist Kovacs, they're both in bodies that neither would recognize. On top of this, Morgan understands the politics of his world intimately, espousing extremely plausible arguments and epithets throughout his work that makes it so much more than simple entertainment. Even so, entertaining it most certainly is.Read more commentary on the work of Richard Morgan by clicking on the following links. Reviews of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Market Forces ? and my exclusive interview with the author can be found here. Richard Morgan's web site is www.rickardkmorgan.com