Book Review: Outlander by Matt Keefe

Spend a few minutes looking through the book reviews or reading about my creative history and you’ll quickly realise I’m a fan of the worlds created by Games Workshop. I may not roll dice, or spend hours holding a paintbrush anymore, but I still draw great enjoyment from delving into the sci-fi and fantasy imaginations of the Warhammer worlds through the books they publish.

When I was younger, and did actually play the games, the one I was into most was Necromunda. Skewed from the lore of Warhammer 40,000; it involved small gangs of street fighters struggling to survive in the harsh urban sprawls of a hive world. It appealed to me as the games were shorter and more narrative. Fights were between equal numbers and tactics were simple – it’s last man standing. Your gang developed as it gained experience, one fight helping narrate the next. Winning or losing didn’t really matter; Necromunda rewarded experience.

A few years ago, when I got back into the hobby, I discovered that Necromunda, sadly, was no more. It could be argued that Games Workshop had replaced my favourite short form game with their Lord of the Rings series, but it wasn’t the same. I longed for Necromunda and so, it appeared did many others. Rumours abound that an issue with property rights would stop Games Workshop ever bringing it back until, without prior warning, they announced it’s rerelease. A new box set with updated rules was on it’s way, the old gangs were being remodelled and the Black Library opened their archives and went to print – digitally. Every Necromunda story written was bundled together and released as an ebook omnibus. I was in heaven, and my bank account was empty.

The ebooks download simply zipped together into one large file. No order, no “start here…”, no help. Even the Black Library sales page online only lists the books in alphabetical order. So, I assumed, they would all be standalone stories – jump straight in and start where you like. And therefore, completely without reason, I picked Outlander by Matt Keefe.

What I found though was a book totally at odds with the world of Necromunda I remembered. I expected to return to an urbanised and industrialised underworld. Darkness hiding broken pipes that spew luminous toxic liquids, electrical cables popping in a shower of sparks that ignite a split second of the darkness with light, but Keefe took me instead to a place of apparent sand dunes and expansive deserts; where high winds tested the survival instincts of its inhabitants more than any gun or knife could. It felt wrong and at odds to everything I remembered and expected. How exactly was this Necromunda?

I got into it though. My mind, eventually, disconnecting from trying to place the world Keefe was creating into the world I expected. I stopped trying to make this into my Necromunda and instead just took it on its merits. I’ve never read a story by Matt Keefe before. A search of The Black Library website showing that he’s only written two other short stories for them but I found the tone, style and pacing of his writing to be engaging enough to keep in interested, although my mind would wander after a while. It’s not a book you’ll lose yourself in for hours at a time, but it can hold its own as your dip in and out.

Sadly though, the story just meanders to a suspicious conclusion. That’s not to say it’s boring, the individual characters involved have strong enough personalities to ensure it doesn’t simply descend into a monotonous sludge of fighting and death that drags along to the end; it’s just that from very early on I had deduced that the story would take a specific path and while it managed to make me forget my expectations for large parts – I would get caught up in the experiences of individual characters – when I was finally proved right I felt slightly cheated. Everything had proven so simple in the end it almost felt like the book had just given in and ended without really trying. That it knew I already knew, and had simply gave up the act and pretence as a result.

It’s an enjoyable read but it’s a middle of the road, three-out-of-five-star book. For me, it stretches the world of Necromunda just a little bit too far from my memories to feel correct. I am certain, however, that wasn’t the best place to start reading the omnibus collection. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that may have even been the problem. It maybe that I the world Keefe created does indeed exist within the habitations of the underworld of Necromunda, but that, I arrived at there too quickly. That I’ve run before I remembered how to walk. Whatever the truth, I hope the rest of the Necromunda collection doesn’t follow his lead, because, no matter what I thought of his writing and story he told, the world he placed it in just wasn’t Necromunda and ultimately, that’s all I really wanted.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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