See also my reviews of Broken Angels, Altered Carbon, Market Forces and my interview with Richard
Having taken a break from his Protectorate universe and main protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, with his previous novel Market Forces, Woken Furies marks an uncompromising return for Richard Morgan to far-flung, far future, far-gone mayhem.
Kovacs has returned to his birthplace of Harlan’s World, an unpleasant place firmly under the heel of organised crime and big business. Grim, gritty and (yes, let’s get all three nouns out of the way at once, shall we?) noir-ish, Harlan’s World is the kind of place you’d expect to produce someone like Kovacs. The man is there on a personal mission of vengeance in memory of a lost love, but is blown off course when an ordinary bar room brawl turns out to have complicated consequences. Under the only slightly ironic name of Micky Serendipity, Kovacs winds up in the machine-infested badlands on the wrong side of the planet pursued by, well, just about everyone who’s anyone really.
Things go from complicated to complicated-squared when the leader of the machine decommissioning team he falls in with is apparently – impossibly – possessed by the recorded personality of Quellcrist Falconer. ‘Quell’, as she is better known, died centuries ago; then she was merely the most famous revolutionary leader in the entire Protectorate, now she is a bona fide legend. And then things go from complicated-squared to complicated-cubed when it transpires that the ruling First Families have unearthed and given a new body to a 200-year-old stored copy of Takeshi Kovacs – an earlier, meaner and cockier version, driven by youthful enthusiasm to kill his tired old embarrassment of a copy. This ‘dual sleeving’ is, of course, just about the most illegal thing you can do in the Protectorate universe, especially when the dual-bodied person is a former member of the Envoys, the Protectorate’s own invincible shock troops – the most highly trained and feared fighting force ever seen anywhere.
Furthermore, those of you familiar with Morgan’s previous books may recall that Harlan’s World is a bit special in that it’s ringed with ancient Martian orbital platforms, still carrying out their inexplicable mission after half a million years, that will instantly shoot down any flying machine more complicated than a helicopter, or even one of those that breaks a roughly 400-metre ceiling. Are they related at all to the ‘mimints’ (Military Machine Intelligences) that the Decoms hunt/are hunted by? Are the mimints connected to the return of Quell? Is Quell’s return the catalyst for a new civil war on Harlan’s World? Can Kovacs possibly extricate himself from the mess he is growing increasingly tangled in?
The question for the reader must be: how much misery, horror and death can you possibly stand? It too often feels as though Woken Angels is an unending slog through all of the above. Nothing ever goes right for Kovacs, from whose viewpoint the entire book is told; but for various reasons that I can’t reveal here without spoiling things, it’s very hard to maintain any sympathy or empathy for the man. He’s a bastard. He knows he’s a bastard: sometimes he glories in it, sometimes he agonises about it, but it’s what he is, and reading about a bastard getting shot, beaten and stabbed, and seeing all his companions being inexorably murdered, frankly becomes a bit much.
Woken Furies is beautifully written: as usual the noir comparisons are absolutely spot-on, there are razor-sharp metaphors and similes on every single page, and the plot is a deep, dark slow-moving shark beneath the surface of the story. But it’s more depressing than ever before, and ultimately becomes very tiring - not tiresome, but tiring. There are growing portents of much larger galactic-scale events, there are the Martian remains and an entire universe to explore, and yet we get no more than a tantalising glimpse of them, mired as we seem to be permanently be in Kovacs’ bleak chaotic world. No amount of graphically well-portrayed casual sex could quite make up for this to a science fiction fan - I want technoporn rather than just porn!
This is perhaps rather an unfair judgement by me as I’ve almost unreservedly loved all of Morgan’s previous books and always called for, basically, more of the same. And now that I’ve got it I find it isn’t what I wanted at all. There are some fairly major developments in the Protectorate universe right at the end of Woken Furies, but then there were some of a similarly titanic nature at the end of Broken Angels, and those seem to have been almost (but not quite) forgotten here. There’s no real sense of moving on, of development. Kovacs feels too static and trapped in a bad place. It was a perverse kind of fun to visit for a while but I simply don’t want to play any more.