Below is the next in an ongoing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Meghan McCarron, whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons and is upcoming in the anthology Twenty Epics. She's an alum of Clarion West '04 and recently graduated from Wesleyan University as a film major. She lives, for the moment, in Los Angeles.
Woken Furies was released in the U.K. in March and will be released in the U.S. in October.
Woken Furies by Richard Morgan
a guest review by Meghan McCarron
I have a love/hate relationship with military SF, and judging from all the political hemming and hawing in Woken Furies, so does Richard K. Morgan. And yes, even though the book is being marketed as neo-noir, I would classify it as military SF. It's got much more in common with Three Kings than L.A. Confidential.
Woken Furies is the third book in a series featuring Takeshi Kovacs, ex-UN commando with a flair for violence, some serious emotional issues, and a swagger Philip Marlowe (or Han Solo) would envy. He inhabits in a far-future world where the discovery of long-lost Martian technology (and maps) has allowed humanity to inhabit the Martians' abandoned planetary colonies as well as good old Earth. In addition, humanity has achieved quasi-immortality by storing a person's personality and/or soul in a "cortical stack" that can be fitted into any cloned "sleeve," allowing for someone to live as long as that stack survives, which can be hundreds of years.
At its best, the series combines archeological intrigue, political philosophy, and lots of ass-kicking, not to mention smart language play and hot sex. As a fan of all of these things, especially language play and ass-kicking (and, okay, you got me, hot sex), I recommend the series, though I encourage you to start with earlier books, because Morgan seems to have declared war on exposition and those weaklings who crave it. This is a book I wanted to be able to search with Google. But while I'm not sure that keeping the audience in the dark is the best way to create suspense, the information gap didn't stop me when I was reading.
There are, however, a few more serious flaws. First of all, the language. One of the things that really charmed me about this book was the mish-mash of the names. Sylvia Oshima. New Hokkaido. Adoracion. They paint a cultural picture that isn't, and never needs to be, explained. And while the writing style is catchy (I found it playing in my head, embellishing my life's events: "Meghan stumbles into the Coffee Bean thinking about the mess of traffic awaiting her, a sludged-up river that stinks instead of moves. A caffeine headache, slight but needy, hums, but relief is coming..."), the catchiness often runs away with itself, resulting in sentences like, "The heat settled on me wetly."
And then there's the politics. The last third of Woken Furies is mired in politics: revolutionary, colonial, oligarchic, and otherwise. This book wants you to know war is hell and communist-style revolution is fraught with dangers, even as it decries the oligarchy and delights in the hero's violent power. So the message ends up being something more like, "War is hell, revolutions don't work, but war is great to write about, and what if this revolution does work? The end."
On one hand, I'm glad the book took up questions of violence and equality. But if you do take it up, don't devote 150 pages to the question and then drop it like something on fire. A book about violence needs to deal with that violence, not simply say "it's fucked up," and move on to the next fight.
There's more to be said here, but I'm trying to keep this review blog-length, and it seems a little silly to go into character details when no one else [in the U.S.] even has the book yet (it comes out in October). Suffice to say that an engaging hero and a tech-rich world buys the series a lot of leeway, but if it's to continue its shelf life, it needs to engage with, not simply flirt with, the numerous dilemmas its world and hero raise. Besides the issues of violence and revolution, there is little or no engagement with the central conceits of 1. We've found the immortal soul 2. We can store with technology, and 3. There are fucking Martians!!! The series asks the reader to take these things as givens, but the more I read, the more questions I started asking. The book is worth reading, and it's a good ride, but ultimately it comes down as simply "ambitious" instead of a pure success.