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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

Broken Angels isn't broken

Broken Angels - Richard K. Morgan

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 some reads through reviews, and I noticed that many people felt this wasn’t as strong as Altered CarbonThey were wrong; for me, it was much better.


It’s the twenty-fifth century (no, not Duck Dodgers) and humanity has advanced its technical knowledge enough to be able to digitize personality by means of a small ‘cortical stack’ placed near 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. 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.’ While in a hospital ship recovering from his latest injuries, Kovacs 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 who know more than they should.


True to the action tradition, plot is fast-moving and evolves quickly. By chapter three, Kovacs is putting team together. It 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.

Kovacs’ disenchanted, battle-scarred characterization is a strong point of the book. 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 standout. While I first expected the Martian ruins to be a quest MacGuffin, I was soon proved wrong. The value of the ruins proved to be a philosophical discussion point, true, but they also became just kick-butt cool.



Morgan created a sense of the Other/alien that, while delightfully unexpected, felt terribly, hauntingly real. The twist was a satisfying way to wring the last bit of emotion from the scene, and drive home the point for humanity (but it won’t).

(show 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.