‘Broken Angels,’ Richard K. Morgan’s sequel to ‘Altered Carbon,’ puts his hero in jeopardy on a war-torn colony world

April 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 22, 2019

About four months ago, I reviewed Altered Carbon, the breakout debut novel by British science fiction and fantasy author Richard K. Morgan. Last week, my local library hold on a digital copy of the sequel, Broken Angels, and I’m happy to report that it’s just as entertaining as its predecessor.

The second book, which was published in the U.S. the same year as Morgan’s first, 2003, is set on the war-wracked colony planet Sentinel Sanction IV roughly 30 years after the events of Altered Carbon. The story opens when narrator Takeshi Kovacs, a soldier with a freighted past, is approached while recuperating from wounds sustained in a savage local civil war being fought between a cartel and insurrectionists. This individual has a proposition for Kovacs that concerns an artifact left behind by an apparently extinct alien race whose remains humans have been uncovering and attempting to interpret for centuries:

“[A]ny decent archaeologue who wants to make a killing is going to head for the centers of habitation, and that’s what they all did.” 

“How do you know all this, Schneider? You’re not an archaeologue.” 

He held out his left hand and pulled back his sleeve to let me see the coils of a winged serpent tattooed in illuminum paint under the skin. The snake’s scales glinted and shone with a light of their own and the wings moved fractionally up and down so that you almost seemed to hear the dry flapping and scraping that they would make. Entwined in the serpent’s teeth was the inscription SANCTION IP PILOT’S GUILD, and the whole design was wreathed with the words THE GROUND IS FOR DEAD PEOPLE. It looked almost new. 

I shrugged. “Nice work. And?” 

“I ran haulage for a group of archaeologues working the Dangrek coast northwest of Sauberville. They were mostly [novices], but…” 

…… 

“Point is, we — they — found something.” 

“Found what?” 

“A Martian starship.” Schneider stubbed out his cigarette. “Intact.” 

“Crap.” 

“Yes, we did.” 

I sighed again. “You’re asking me to believe you dug up an entire spaceship — no, sorry, starship — and the news about this somehow hasn’t gotten around? No one saw it. No one noticed it lying there. What did you do, blow a bubblefab over it?” 

Schneider licked his lips and grinned. Suddenly he was enjoying himself again. 

“I didn’t say we dug it up, I said we found it. Kovacs, it’s the size of a fucking asteroid and it’s out there on the edges of the Sanction system in parking orbit. What we dug up was a gate that leads to it.” 

Kovacs is serving as a junior officer with Carrera’s Wedge, a fighting outfit employed by the status quo–supporting cartel, and he’s eager to escape the brutal war. Pursuing a priceless artifact is as good an excuse as any to go AWOL. He and Schneider liberate “archaeologue” Tanya Wardani from a prison camp, attract funding and support from a corporate executive named Mathias Hand, and recruit a group of mercenaries to staff their sub rosa expedition.

Wardani, Schneider and their former associates reburied the teleportation gate in rock once hostilities broke out. The mercs are needed because the gate, like much of Sanction IV, is situated in an active war zone. Their assistance proves invaluable — after the gate is uncovered again, Wardani struggles to reactivate it, and an experimental self-replicating, artificially intelligent nanotech weapon system begins prowling the area.

‘Broken Angels’ (published 2003; 2004 American cover shown) by Richard K. Morgan

The group’s struggles don’t end when they reach the so-called Martian starship. A saboteur attempts to prevent the group from staking their claim, and some old friends of Kovacs catch up with them — friends whose helpfulness is tainted by less-than altruistic motives.

Whereas Altered Carbon melded the science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk with hardboiled noir-style mystery fiction, Broken Angels features the adventure and cyberpunk elements while moving noir aspects into the background. The question here isn’t who killed whom, or how; instead, it’s which individual is selling out the ragtag expedition, and why.

Rather than treading old ground — thankfully, there’s no talk of dippers or dipping — Morgan explores the Martians, which appeared in Altered Carbon as little more than a throwaway bit of world-building. (Incidentally, people call the aliens Martians because their remnants were first discovered on Mars; no one actually knows where they originated or what became of them.) The author also further toys with the ramifications of humanity’s ability to “resleeve,” or slot a copy of a person’s brain into an entirely different body.

The climactic showdown is a bit clichéd — two warriors battling on and around an abandoned alien starship. On the other hand, it’s two warriors battling on and around an abandoned alien starship, and Morgan handles it with aplomb.

Because Broken Angels deemphasizes the mystery components of the original, this book probably has less crossover appeal than Altered Carbon. But it’s very much a worthy follow-up, and I eagerly look forward to reading the trilogy’s capper.

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