Broken Angels: Good noir science fiction

Richard K. Morgan Takeshi Kovacs 1. Altered Carbon 2. Broken Angels 3. Woken FuriesRichard K. Morgan Broken AngelsBroken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

Three weeks ago I finished Broken Angels, the second book in Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. I’ve been struggling with this review ever since. Broken Angels is good noir science fiction. It is well-written. I just didn’t like it.

In some places in the book the timbers of the plot show through the flash-and-dazzle, but that is no more than a nuisance. Kovacs is a believable character in a complicated and exciting situation. The world, Sanction IV, is not well drawn at all, and that is deliberate. Sanction IV’s civil war is is just One More War on One More World. The planet’s people, its history, its culture and its future don’t matter to the people Kovacs works for, or to Kovacs himself for that matter.

On medical leave from the government-sponsored military, Kovacs is drawn into a scheme to claim an alien artifact, a starship parked in orbit around the planet. To pursue this prize, Kovacs goes AWOL, sort of, frees a local archeologist from an internment camp for dissidents, and makes a pitch to a “lean and hungry” corporation to bankroll the expedition.

As he unrolls this adventure for us, Morgan juggles a number of serious themes: corporate interests and war; academia and religion; the mind-body split; and the impact of genetic engineering. Published in 2003, Broken Angels struggles with some of the same questions Paolo Bacigalupi addressed in The Windup Girl. How do you know if your insight, your impulse, is coming from “you,” or just your programming? If you are conscious of your conditioning, can you overcome it? If you are a product of conditioning, do you really have free will?

Kovacs has two levels of conditioning; the genetic tags in the cloned body or “sleeve” that he wears, and the deeper, permanent Envoy conditioning which actually changed his consciousness (or, as Kovacs subversively refers to it, his soul). Consciousness in this universe resides as digital code in a cylinder embedded at the base of a person’s skull. This “cortical stack” can be retrieved from any piece of dead meat and installed in another “sleeve.” Where Kovacs is from, clothes do not make the man.

In an early scene in Broken Angels, Kovacs goes to a “Soul Market,” where shoppers can buy cortical stacks by the pound. There’s a war on, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and cortical stacks are piled up in huge bins, waiting for someone with enough interest or money to re-sleeve them. The stacks are tarnished and grotty, with bits of spine still clinging to them. It’s a vivid scene. Well, done, Mr Morgan! Human life is worthless! We get it.

After he reconstitutes a group of soldiers, Kovacs leads the expedition to the alien portal that opens into space, where the starship waits. This is one area where you can see the author forcing the plot. “Oh, no, someone sabotaged our salvage beacon! We’ll have to go through the portal and install a beacon on the ship manually.” Dude, it’s an alien starship! Did anyone think for two seconds that your characters weren’t going to explore it?

They do explore the ship and this part of the story is wonderful. Then they are captured by the military. The last third of the book is a prison break. One of the team is tortured to death, but off-stage, so the reader hears his screams as the rest of the team discusses escape options.

Even with glitches, Broken Angels works well as an adventure. Morgan also does a good job of imparting information that will help the reader understand things in Woken Furies, the final book of the set. In the first book Altered Carbon, I developed some sympathy for Kovacs as he tried to do a couple of tiny things to change the balance of power in a stacked-deck world. In Angels, Kovacs is the one doing the stacking. He spends most of this book fighting down his impulses toward decency. Am I wrong for wanting the decency to win, just once, just for contrast?

I’m giving the book three stars because I think that Morgan achieved his goals. The book is well done, just not to my taste. He has created a credible dystopian future, and while I can quibble about gaps and inconsistencies, for the most part it works. If you like military science fiction, cool gadgets, virtual sex and alien starships, there is a lot to enjoy in Broken Angels.

~Marion Deeds

Richard K. Morgan Broken AngelsThirty years after the events in Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs hires on with Carrera’s Wedge, a mercenary outfit contracted by the government-supported corporations to fight against revolutionaries on the distant planet Sanction IV. Kovacs is a former Envoy — one of the elite covert ops commandos feared throughout known space. So, like it or not, all-out military conflict is what Kovacs does best. However, he has become bone-weary of the stalemate that is only serving to greatly increase the body count. So when a pilot approaches Kovacs with tales of a Martian artifact that can instantaneously transport people and things to the edges of the universe, he seizes on a way out with a huge pay-off as an added bonus. Kovacs finagles Matthias Hand, a high executive with the Mandrake Corporation, to get financial backing for a clandestine mission to recover the ancient, alien star-gate. Kovacs and Hand purchase a team of specialized soldiers for the job from the “Soul Market” and initiate plans. But just who is working for whom? Who are the good guys? Is there even such a thing as the good guys? Just what the hell will Kovacs and his team discover and, most importantly, will anyone make it out alive?

Where Altered Carbon was a neo-noir mystery, Broken Angels is military science fiction. Still, Broken Angels has the same dark, edgy feel as that first TAKESHI KOVACS novel. The technologies that Morgan first explains in Altered Carbon continue to be a key element of this series. Technological and scientific advances that should improve quality of life only grant those in authority more power over the masses. Science has defeated death, but immortality has made human life into little more than an abundant commodity. That life is cheap is a heavy theme throughout the story.

Landscapes littered with dusty colossal industrial hulks, oppressive corporations, ultra-deadly military weaponry, globe-encompassing war, and weird alien relics are all elements that serve to create a grim far-future for mankind. The realization that the universe is full of unknown terrors that can at any moment swallow us up like we never existed is horrifying.

There isn’t a single character in this story that I could say is likable. It’s almost unsettling how Morgan can still make them charismatic. Takeshi Kovacs himself frowns — just a little bit — on the senselessness of wholesale slaughter but won’t hesitate to kill and kill again. Although they are in a shaky alliance, Matthias Hand serves as Kovacs’ nemesis in this book. As the ultimate corporate ass, Hand would be a character that I have personal reasons to hate, but he becomes one of my favorites in the book. Almost all the team members have intriguing personalities and pasts that lend unique perspectives to the events.

Broken Angels might be righteously accused of overkill. Multiple climactic events slightly confuse the flow, as if it’s really two books instead of one. The casualty rate may make it a contender for a fiction world record. Don’t ask me who the good guys are, because I’m still not sure. The biggest hurdle Broken Angels may have is that it’s just so dark that many readers may find it depressing. However, this reader didn’t have any of those problems.

So what if it reads a little like it’s more than one book? What can I say? Broken Angels is a bargain. Planet-wide warfare with futuristic weapons and the ability to bring 90% of dead soldiers back to life would make the violence unimaginable. Personally, I think good guys are overrated — but if one is needed, I choose Kovacs. True, he’s in my top five list of the most pissed-off fictional characters of all time, but he’s got good reason. Plus, you have to admire a man that sticks to a code of honor, even if it’s his own, slightly skewed one.

Regarding the pervasive doom-and-gloom in Broken Angels, I managed to find a candle-flicker in the blackness. Just like in Altered Carbon, Morgan sneaks in profound musings about what it is to be human. I took heart in finding that even in our grim far-flung future, when science can deliver what only religion promised before, faith survives. Many of the people in this story still believe in a supreme being and take comfort in that knowledge. Kovacs may or may not buy into it himself, but with his authority issues, his opinions are understandable.

Besides, how can you not love a guy who sticks it to the man every chance he gets?

~Greg Hersom

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds


  1. That actually sounds like great fun to me. I haven’t read much Morgan, but I guess I like grittier SF — sounds like he’s in the Abercrombie/K.J. Parker school, and not quite the Jesse Bullington gross-out dormitory, if I may carry the metaphor just a bit too far.

  2. Greg – I think the slogan for the whole Kovacs series is, “Life is Cheap.”

    I love how you managed to capture exactly what I liked about this book and exactly what I didn’t like about it. Now I really want to see what you make of Woken Furies!

  3. Thanks so much, Marion. I’d been waiting to see what you thought. :)
    One thing -which accents our wide range of taste here at FanLit-; the part at the “Soul Market” that you wasn’t so crazy about, was actually one of my favorite parts. But I definitely understand why you didn’t like it.

    Funny you mention Woken Furies, I just recently re-read your review and now I’m looking forward to it even more. I’d be reading it now, but I need to get a new release done first.

  4. Greg — okay, I didn’t like the Soul Market scene, but I did think it was very well done. One of the things I like about Morgan is his descriptive detail, even when it creeps me out. One of the things the Soul Market scene did perfectly was demonstrate how humans have been reduced to commodities, and not even shiny expensive ones at that, but retreads shovelled into a bargain bin like size 12 flip-flops at a Barney’s basement sale.

  5. Well said Marion- Morgan really does know how to make the story real. In Broken Angels, at times, it was almost too much in comparison to Altered Carbon.


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