Superior to Altered Carbon (and entirely readable on its own), Broken Angels finally shows Richard K. Morgan cutting the umbilical from the influences he displayed so unabashedly before, and moving the stories of Takeshi Kovacs off into new and more interesting directions.
From a storytelling standpoint, Angels is tighter, more focused. From a character and themes standpoint, it has many of the same peccadilloes as Carbon. Morgan's future outlook comes across, if not nihilistic, certainly deeply misanthropic, and his thematic messages — people are cruel and warlike; corporations are corrupt; technology is dehumanizing — are simplistic. Also, most of the supporting characters are far more sympathetic than our brutal, cold fish hero. But if you're looking for gripping, violent, action-packed space opera for the 21st century, Morgan is looking more and more like SF's go-to guy with each book. While I'm sure Morgan would like these novels to hit readers at a much deeper level, it's probably for the best if they were enjoyed as escapism. Otherwise, their bleakness could well wear you down.
Broken Angels moves far, far away from the detective/noir motif of Carbon and emerges as a gritty work of military SF action. Thirty years after the events of the previous book (easy to pull off in a future where people can simply move from body tobody over the years in order to avoid death), Kovacs has left Earth and gotten a job as a mercenary fighting for Carrera's Wedge, an army resisting a particularly potent rebellion on the colony world of Sanction IV. This shift in setting punches the whole series up a notch or two, as it means we get a stronger depiction of the backstory of Morgan's future, only hints of which were droppoed in Carbon. It appears that explorations of Mars have revealed, over the past centuries, a vast, extinct interstellar-traveling civilization. And it is thanks to these long-dead winged Martians that humanity owes its star maps and colonized worlds.
Anyway, while Kovacs is recovering on Sanction IV from battle wounds, he is approached by another soldier about a discovery off on a distant coast that has been kept remarkably secret: a kind of Martian stargate, opening up directly onto a point in space near the far edge of Sanction IV's system. Next to which is parked a 60-kilometer long Martian spacecraft. Could this lead to such dreamed-of discoveries as FTL travel? Needless to say, with the money they might make selling this discovery to the right corporate interests (who are also funding the war, by the way), easy street is well within reach.
While it seems to Kovacs wildly implausible that word hasn't gotten out about such a discovery, he goes along with the scheme, going AWOL from Carrera's Wedge to do so. They hook up with an executive from the Mandrake Corporation, a smaller player, who himself has the air of a fanatic and has multiple enemies within his own company. They arrange to have an archeologue (Morgan's term for archaeologist, suggesting that there's nothing in his future not tied to some fanatical ideology) sprung from an internment camp, where they learn that another shadowy group has previously tried to spring her. And they resurrect a handpicked team of soldiers for muscle.
Naturally, the plot thickens as it's propelled forward, with the threat of treachery, sabotage, radiation sickness, and who-knows-what on the other side of the gate forever looming. It's wonderful that the shameless Gibsonisms and Ridley Scottisms of the first book are gone; the change shows. Morgan grabs this story with both hands, like a world champion wrestler in the first round. The writing feels invigorated now that he's finding his own voice more and more.
Still, it would be nice if there were more to like about Takeshi Kovacs, dammit. It's often hard to get a handle on his jaded, world-weary (not to mention violent) character. He comes off as the kind of routine antihero who's only ever in it for himself, until the point of the story emerges where he is obliged to sprout a conscience, which he then usually salves through merciless killing. As in Carbon, Kovacs appears never to have met a problem he couldn't solve merely by slaughtering everyone in the immediate vicinity, like some post-cyberpunk incarnation of Jason Voorhees. Even some of the other characters (like Tanya Wardani, the archeologue, who has a real conscience and sense of dismay for the seemingly inevitable fate of civilizations) think he's a little over the top. What is especially depressing is to think that perhaps Kovacs is the way he is because that's the only kind of character who could reasonably expect to survive in the dog-eat-dog-eat-dog future Morgan has imagined.
But amongst the supporting characters you will find a number of folks to sympathize with, who do bring a human element to the narrative. Morgan, as any good writer would, doesn't just make the soldiers faceless grunts, and some of the book's best scenes are the quiet ones. A shared bottle of whiskey aboard the deck of a boat is just the kind of moment that puts the human touch on even the darkest story. Furthermore, I really liked how certain elements of the plot were left deliberately mysterious. It might seem odd that Morgan would introduce a 60-km Martian starship into his book (with hints it might even be haunted) only to have it serve as the backdrop of the climactic fight between Kovacs and the bad guy. But had there been extended exploration scenes, not only would the pace have bogged down, but we'd have been back in copycat territory with scenes overly reminiscent of, say, Clarke's Rama or McDevitt's Chindi. And as it is, Morgan is able to make some sound points about the potentially disastrous consequences of simply piggybacking on technologies we don't fully understand. Plus, more mysteries are left to be solved in future sequels.
Incidentally, I also admired the double meaning in the novel's title, referring both to the tragic fate of the Martians, and to the often crippled psychological state of people who have died and been "resleeved" — transferred into new bodies. But there's a strong cautionary message to that, that often borders on technophobia.
While I think the effusive hype surrounding Morgan's rise in SF (no doubt somewhat inspired by his undeniable skill at writing graphically excessive action scenes) might be a tad premature, he is an important talent whose most exciting quality is that he still seems like he's only just warming up. When he writes the book where the lid blows off entirely, watch out!