Recently I’ve been told I’m tough to please.
Here’s what I know about books: their experience is highly subjective. Not only to book details like plot, setting and characterization, but also to the reader’s place and time, their mood, the book format and surrounding distractions.
I had minimal hopes when I picked up Broken Angels, despite enjoying Altered Carbon immensely. I’m the sort of reader that previews through reviews, and I noticed that many people felt this book wasn’t as strong as Altered Carbon. They were wrong–for me–it was much better.
It’s the twenty-fifth century and humanity has advanced its technical knowledge enough to be able to digitize personality by means of a small ‘cortical stack’ in the spinal column. It holds personality and memories up until death. If the cortical stack is undamaged, after death it can be placed in another body, whether vat-grown or organic, and the person resumes consciousness at the point they died. Significant other technological advancements include colonizing solar systems, thanks to star and planetary maps discovered in abandoned Martian ruins.
Takeshi Kovacs was born on one of those far-flung worlds, served in the military, and joined the specialized and highly trained Envoys (think enhanced SEALs), left after disillusionment, and then become self-employed, more or less, if by ‘self-employed,’ one means a life of crime alternating with mercenary work . He is currently contracted as a soldier on the backwater world of Sanction IV as a member of Wedge Command, an elite mercenary force employed by the government. A man named Kemp is leading an insurrection, but the intergalactic Protectorate has yet to officially interfere, as the local government insists this is a ‘domestic matter.’ Kovacs is in a hospital ship recovering from his latest injuries when he is approached by a pilot who wants his help finding and selling access to a hidden Martian stargate and the abandoned spaceship on the other side of the gate. Successfully selling their knowledge could mean a ticket off the war-torn world and financial riches. What follows is a classic plot of putting the team together, pursuing their quest and then protecting it until they can stake their claim on it. They face a variety of obstacles including the civil war raging around them and adversaries both human and non-human.
True to the action tradition, plot is fast-moving and evolves quickly. By chapter three, Kovacs is putting team together. The plot held together well, with the question of success ratcheted up by violence, unclear motivations and technological twists. Although it may seem that the cortical stacks bring a level of safety, resulting in a need to bring video-game level violence to the equation, Morgan is still able to create tension and fear in the reader in a number of ways, particularly the idea of ‘true death.’
The writing elevates it beyond average. Kovacs is an intelligent, intuitive narrator and his observations are a fascinating combination of calculating and poetic. He describes the archeologist in virtual reality: “The version of Tanya Wardani I was looking at didn’t have those kinds of discrepancies–it was more a general sheen of health that she didn’t yet have back in the real world, or perhaps just the lack of a similar, more grimy sheen of unhealth.”
Descriptions of the Martian gate were wonderfully ominous:”There was none of the passive openness that the word gate suggested. In the soft light filtering down through chinks in the rocks above, the whole thing looked hunched and waiting.”
Then there’s moments of Morgan’s humor: “As usual, Kovacs, you approach what you do not understand with all the sensitivity of a chimpanzee troop.”
Truly, one of the passages I just loved had to do with comparing nuclear radiation to a party, in a confluence of beauty and decay: “This soon after the blast, and this close in, the elemental exotics would be out in force. Strontium 90, iodine 131, and all their numerous friends, like a ‘methed-up party of Harlan family heirs crashing wharf-side Millsport with their chittering bright enthusiasm. Wearing their unstable subatomic jackets like swamp panther skin and wanting into everywhere, every cell they could fuck up with their heavily jeweled presence.”
Kovacs’ disenchanted, battle-scarred characterization is a strong point of the book. There’s a complexity to his character that goes far beyond the usual world-weary renegade. Morgan states he was strongly influenced by the noir tradition, as well as the political setting during the Reagan-Thatcher years, and Norse mythology around heroes. He states in the same interview, “there was a sense of moral bankruptcy in the air, a sense of failed ideals, and Kovacs walked right out of those ruins.” It is absolutely one of my favorite things about his writing; however unsubtle the violence may be, the finesse with which he creates Kovacs’ state of mind is fabulous. Although not all characters are complicated, Kovacs is one of the more ambiguous anti-heroes I’ve seen.
The space setting ended up being an unexpected delight. It isn’t clear, at first, if the search for the Martian gate is a quest MacGuffin. I was soon proved wrong. In this world, humanity has yet to encounter living Martins, just the unclear relics of their cities and a handful of mummified remains. The Martians take on a symbolic value to early humanity, and Morgan does an excellent job of using the archeologist to provide information to the ignorant soldiers (and thus the reader) without excessive info-dumping. But more than just a plot point, the Martians play a philosophical importance as well. Even better, they became just kick-butt cool.
Morgan created a sense of the Martian Other/alien that, while delightfully unexpected, felt terribly, hauntingly real. The twist on the other side of the stargate were extremely satisfying, initially in a sense of wonder, and later as a way to wring the last bit of emotion and plot complexity from the book, as well as drive home the meaning.
[END OF MY ALMOST-SPOILER]
Down-rating comes from sex scenes that largely felt gratuitous and not particularly important to plot or character-building (but no doubt pleasing to the cinematic eye). They were largely ineffective to building a sense of emotional engagement between Kovacs and the character, particularly as Kovacs keeps referencing the dash of “wolf splice” in his soldier genetic make-up that accounts for fierce loyalty to the group. I also felt like the transitions between chapters were rougher than they needed to be. While I’m a fan of immersive world-building, chapters initially felt a little like river rocks that required a jump from one to the next, instead of linked steps on a bridge. I also felt like the spiritual component was less well-done, lacking clarity of intention and meaning. However, I may change my mind on re-read.
While Altered Carbon takes readers through the ins and outs of the ramifications of digitizing personality and body-switching, Broken Angels focuses more on the social and personal costs of the manipulations of the war machine by government and corporations. Perhaps the shift in style is why some felt it was inferior to Altered Carbon, which hailed from the noir school of the anti-hero private detective and focused more on individual economic disparity. Personally, I found both to be very well done, with above average science fiction components. No doubt Broken Angels will make its way to my physical space-impaired library, because this is one I want to re-read.
As a final note, I’m reasonably certain Morgan snuck in a couple of Hitchhiker’s Guide references early on in the book. Bonus stars for him!