Review: Broken Angels, by Richard Morgan

Broken Angels

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-08125-5

(Review first published on the ASIM website, May 2009)

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There’s a rule of thumb I’ve read of, to the effect that in a novel the writer can comfortably count on a thirty-page-or-so lead-in before the reader’s patience is exhausted, and some manner of narrative hook must grudgingly be presented. I don’t know if Richard Morgan knows of this rule of the novelist’s craft, but in any event, he doesn’t use it. Of the six Richard Morgan novels I’ve read to date – and at this stage there are only six – I doubt that there’s a total of thirty pages of preliminary material among the lot of them. Broken Angels starts with a bang, takes a sharp right, and then hurtles itself forward, destination who knows where.

Angels presents us with another chapter in the hyperkinetic life of Takeshi Kovacs, ex-soldier, ex-criminal, generally hard-case philosopher, gun for hire, and all-around danger magnet, first encountered on the pages of Morgan’s explosive debut, Altered Carbon. Angels also shares with Morgan’s debut a fascination with graphic violence; with grittily dystopian on-the-fly worldbuilding (and Morgan is already a master at presenting a highly detailed, curmudgeonly perspective on depressingly plausible future societies, without ever once letting this detail get in the way of the action); and with ensemble casts in which no-one is ever a passenger, with all players taking at least some time at the novel’s controls.

But Angels is no mere Carbon copy: in several respects, it presents a quite different type of story. Altered Carbon is at base a murder mystery, steeped in noir tones, adrenaline, and Morgan’s vision of Earth six centuries hence. Broken Angels, though similarly a tale in which the intricacies take their time to unravel and unfold, is almost a first-contact story.

Jan Schneider encounters Takeshi in a military hospital on Sanction IV, where Kovacs, now a mercenary lieutenant, has been invalided along with most of the remnants of his squad. Sanction IV, an unpreposessing wasteland of a planet, is host to a bitter and protracted war of ideology and occupation. The war threatens to engulf the planet’s assortment of ancient alien artefacts. Schneider is particularly driven to ensure that one of these artefacts – an apparently-functional spacecraft, accessible through a concealed hyperspatial gateway (the location of which is known only to Schneider and to an archaeologist companion, Tanya Wardani, currently incarcerated in a refugee camp). Kovacs, skeptical but deciding that staying with Carrera’s Wedge, the mercenary bridage with whom he’s associated, might be hardly less detrimental to his long-term existence than desertion, opts to throw his hand in with Schneider. Provided that things are done his way.

Trouble is, too many other people seem to have their own agendas…

There are aspects of Angels which didn’t altogether work for me. In contrast to the planetary scenes, the space-based sequences didn’t fully capture the gobsmacked awe, the tension and the danger, the sheer otherness which I would have expected from a massive and mouldering alien artefact, in the hands of a writer as genuinely skilled as Morgan. And maybe I’m showing my age, but there are times when I just wish Morgan would pump the brakes, just a little: it’s not a short book, but it’s very busy. Incendiary, in fact. The steadfast, in-your-face violence threatens at times to obscure the fact the Morgan’s novels are generally very thoughtful constructions, with a lot of deeper analysis and a genuine and unrelenting concern to flag social injustice in all its forms. I felt, overall, a bit let down by the storyline, which starts with incredible promise but doesn’t necessarily deliver on every telegraphed plot twist. Still, it’s not a bad book, by any means: more of a ‘difficult second album’. And Morgan at slightly less than his best can still be well worth reading.

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2009)

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