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Broken Angels (Gollancz SF S.) by Richard Morgan
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0575073233
Date: 20 March 2003 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan's debut novel released last year was certainly one of top books of 2002. An astonishing first novel that brushed aside many works by established writers in my personal league table. Essentially a hard-boiled future SF-noir, it was one of those works that fizzled with such energy and verve that to my mind at least it was the embodiment of that ever-to-be-avoided reviewers cliché, "unputdownable". The novel received rave reviews across the board, nominations for awards and, most notably, Morgan sold a movie option to Joel Silver (the guy who produced The Matrix) for a reported million bucks. Not bad for a first novel!

A year on, Gollancz has released Morgan's follow-up novel, Broken Angels, and of course, after all the hype and histrionics over Altered Carbon, we have every right to expect something equally as scintillating for our entertainment.

I use the term "follow-up" rather than "sequel" deliberately. With a sequel, one supposes a continuation of the story, a repeat performance, if you like, but one that moves us on, that takes us to new places but delivers the same kind of thing. The same, but different! The reader (or viewer, because surely the same rules apply to movie sequels) expects to receive the very thing that made him like the first work and is often disappointed when he has to work too hard to find it. At the same time he's irritated if the story is nothing more than a regurgitation of its predecessor. Certainly a hard thing to achieve, it must be quite a conundrum for a writer with a hit on his hands and who (naturally) wants to be recognised as having more than one string to his bow. With Broken Angels, Morgan has opted for something very different from Altered Carbon. From the basic detective story set up of that novel, he has moved us into full scale space opera and though doubtless this is a brave choice, for me at least, the transition is abrupt and alienating.

Takeshi Kovacs' military roots were alluded to explicitly in Altered Carbon. Now he is back with soldiers and blasters and troop carriers, fighting as a mercenary in dirty war to put down a rebellion on one of the Protectorates far flung planets. He is roped into to a covert operation to recover a startling piece of Martian archaeology, a ship located on the other side of a hyperspacial gate. Such an artifact would be worth countless millions to the Corporations that run society and so Kovacs and his partners, one of whom is an archaeology expert in Martian finds, approach such a company and are hired by Matthias Hand, to act on the company's behalf. This is dangerous ground for Kovacs competitors will stop at nothing to get their hands on the ship but the rewards will more than adequately compensate the risks.

The problem is that the gate happens to be located in the middle of a war zone and to get to it, Kovacs needs to gather a team of hard-assed mercenaries together to get him and his team through. Suffice it to say, with many twists and turns, betrayals and deaths along the way, Kovacs and the grunts make it through to the gate and discover the ship contains more than they bargained for.

So, does Broken Angels work? Hmmmm, kinda! Kovacs, our hero here, is the same cold hearted pragmatic killer that he was previously, but where his dry wit and shocking capacity for violence were one of the central engines that drove the previous novel, here, in an environment peopled almost exclusively by other hard cases, he loses the individual clarity and sharpness that made him such an effective protagonist in Altered Carbon. Broken Angels is full (perhaps too full) of grunt soldiers flinging concussion grenades and one liners at each other. It's hard to keep track of who is who after a while.

This environmental change for both protagonist and reader is key as to why Broken Angels is less intrinsically interesting than its predecessor. It is almost as if the grander scale of the piece dissipates the drive of the novel. That said, the central concept of Altered Carbon, that of "resleeving human" consciousness into a new body, is still key, and Morgan squeezes a little more juice from the idea. The team of grunts under Kovacs' command must work in the fall out of a recent nuclear explosion. They know they are doomed to die within days, but to them, this merely means their bodies rather than themselves. The concept remains versatile and intriguing, but, unlike in Altered Carbon, here is relegated to setting rather than situation. By the same token, the mysterious alien artifact theme didn't do it for me. As a mainstay plot device of the genre, I couldn't help thinking that I wasn't seeing anything new here.

It is clear from both of his novels that Morgan is a very intelligent and highly moral writer. His views on corporate monsters insidiously taking over our lives are clearly drawn throughout the narrative. Likewise, this is a writer who understands how to say "War is Bad" without haranguing the reader and at the same time acknowledges that war is one of the main components for pushing the technology level of society up a few notches on the evolutionary ladder. It is a carefully considered and persuasive argument.

For all the philosophy of Broken Angels though, it does lack the edginess and energy of Altered Carbon and I didn't think it half as good. Morgan, however, remains a writer to watch carefully the next book will be the clincher.

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