Altered Carbon was a straight-forward cyberpunk murder mystery that got by on vivid description as well as mainstream genre’s craving for more of the same, repackaged. The main character Takeshi Kovacs was a classic sf hero. Taking the law into his own hands to fight the bad guys and the corrupt system as needed, he survived the attempts on his life, killed the baddies in vengeful fashion, all the while getting to the bottom of things to catch the murderer. Broken Angels (2003), the second Takeshi Kovacs novel, finds the hero oriented in a new, perhaps more cynical, direction.
Now a mercenary fighting in inter-solar system corporate wars, at the beginning of Broken Angels Kovacs lies in convalescence after having been wounded in battle. A mate in the hospital having news too good to be true, he tells Kovacs of an alien artifact discovered on Mars, just waiting to be exploited. Kovacs convinced, he and the mate spring the archeologist who discovered the artifact from prison and are soon on their way to discover what exotic riches lie in wait. Trouble is, the war is still going on, and more than just Kovacs know about the artifact…
Blood, action, violence—these were calling cards of Altered Carbon, and in Broken Angels Morgan opts not to tamper with his formula for success. The main thing he alters is setting. Moving from near-future San Francisco to the solar system (and the orbitals, space ships, and exploration bases that dot the other spheres hurtling around our sun), where Altered Carbon looked at the more tangible aspects of cyberpunk, Broken Angels looks at the more abstract. Multi-national corporations are still the devil’s own, sleeving is still a dirty identity-spinning tech, and data remains of utmost import, but space battles, zero-grav, the alien artifact, and other items flavor the story.
Regardless of the change of pace, there remains much of Broken Angels that feels dull and uninspiring—as if Morgan was going through the motions rather than trying to push the envelope of what he could do in the setting he’d created, or genre at large. Mercenary crew find buried alien artifact that nobody else knows about… Dead horse. It’s an idea that has been beaten and beaten, and the wealth of words and pages Morgan heaps on top doesn’t really add much, save a lot of standard Chandler lines bemoaning the futility of existence, so give me a drink and a cigarette. I am not a reader to champion the virtues of Altered Carbon, but at least it was written with an edge of freshness. Broken Angels seems fundamentally tired. Perhaps a novel that was contracted to be delivered but with no strong idea acting as impetus, Morgan seems to have randomly taken a likely sf motif and trotted it out dressed in Kovacs clothes.
In the end, Broken Angels is a spent novel rehashing very familiar genre ideas (space marines, alien artificats, hardboiled noir sentiment, etc.) in often uninspiring, occasionally entertaining fashion. The actual amount of story not seeming to warrant the bloat of pages (almost 500 in mmp form), the novel pins its hopes on splashes of violence and a world-weariness that appeals to so many contemporary readers of grimdark sf. But could somebody please explain to me how Kovacs went from social justice warrior supreme in Altered Carbon to amoral mercenary for hire in Broken Angels?