Saturday, November 7, 2015

Engaging Angels Isn't Broken At All

It’s hard to transplant writing styles and structures across genres. Just look at Richard K. Morgan’s Broken Angels, the sequel to his SF/hardboiled debut Altered Carbon. Whereas his first book was a delightfully tortuous far-future riff on Raymond Chandler, Broken Angels takes protagonist Takeshi Kovacs out of dingy barrooms, trash-choked alleys, and amoral brothels, sending him instead to the stars.

Thanks to cortical stacks and needlecast transmissions, death isn’t death anymore. Your body may get blown to bits, but with your consciousness encoded on a sliver of silicon embedded in your vertebrae, in no time flat you can end up in a new sleeve (i.e., a genetically engineered frame or one from a convict who’s had his consciousness stripped away). No one knows that better than Takeshi Kovacs, a former U.N. envoy-cum-criminal-cum-detective-cum-mercenary. During his colorful career, he’s been sleeved into more borrowed bodies than he can count. These days he finds himself fighting someone else’s war on the distant world of Sanction IV, a bloody conflict between the governmental powers and revolutionary forces of fanatic Joshua Kemp. He won’t be fighting it long, though. One of his fellow soldiers claims to have discovered a mysterious archeological artifact that will lead to untold riches, a remnant of a long-extinct Martian civilization. To get it, all Kovac needs to do is rescue a near catatonic academic from a concentration camp, try not to get double-crossed by a voodoo-practicing corporate executive, and sift through the remains of a recently nuked city

According to my favorite review metric—namely how much sleep I’ve lost in order to finish Just One More Chapter—Broken Angels is a good book. Morgan knows how to hammer out a solid scenario and then ratchet up the tension, cranking out complication after complication. During a moment of seeming calm at the novel’s midpoint, a pessimistic character intones, “It’s hard to think in terms of peace when you have a murdered city on one hand, the pent-up force of a hyperportal on the other, a closing army of nanocreatures just over the hill, and the air awash with lethal-dose radiation.” And that isn’t even the most pitched encounter; extraterrestrial starship sorties, mech-assisted wholesale slaughter, and deep-space mano-a-mano dueling await. But despite the winning pacing, I still found Broken Angels a little lacking. It goes back to that dense prose and twisty plotting I mentioned earlier. Constantly shifting alliances couched in convoluted writing work well when the action stays small, but if events turn epic, it just makes everything confusing. Also, Morgan’s naturalistic nihilism blunts both the grand and poignant bits. It’s hard to feel emotionally invested when Kovacs keeps opining about how this charnel waste of a universe is forever spinning off into oblivion. Cheery stuff. Still, taken at face value, engaging Angels isn’t broken at all.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Daniela Munoz-Santos)


Daniel said...

A charnel waste spinning off into oblivion = every Monday ever.

Sounds good though. The premise reminds me of certain aspects of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice and sequel; have you taken a look at those yet?

Loren Eaton said...

I followed Leckie a little when she was working with Podcastle, but I haven't since she started writing novels. Honestly, though Angels is pretty good, you might enjoy Altered Carbon more. It just works better. Think of a grittier Neuromancer with a lot more action. Also, it has the most satisfying freefall fight to the death I've ever read -- with thermite fisticuff!