Book Review: Survival Instinct by Andy Chambers

It’s happened! I’ve finally found a Necromunda novel I truly like. There aren’t many named characters in the world of Necromunda, it’s much more about gangs, fighting for survival and territory, under the association of their respective noble houses, but there are one or two outsiders. Characters who stand alone. Arguably the most famous, and certainly the most strikingly notorious, is Mad Donna Ulanti. So legendary is her renown that on the Tales from the Underhive page of The Black Library website, it’s Mad Donna taking the central role in the titular artwork. She was in a story, and I have been longing for it.

I didn’t know, however, which story she would be in and so, was again placing my “reading order trust” purely in the “zip file modification date” system I now employed. Uploading Survival Instinct, the apparent next tale in my journey deeper into the Underhive. As the cover of the book loaded before me, a shiver ran down my spine. There stood Donna. A look of abhorrent disgust in her eyes, her infamous chainsword standing to attention and her trusty Plasma pistol pointing at me, beckoning me inside.

Then I saw the author. Not only was this Donna’s tale, it was penned by Andy Chambers. This boded well and, in my mind, was setting the bar of expectations very high – even if I didn’t actually like the last Chambers story I read. I should point out, that to me, Andy Chambers is something of a Games Workshop legend. Back in the 1990s, when I first got involved in their world, Chambers worked as a games creator and writer. It was he, who wrote the rules, created the army histories and edited the monthly magazine that dictated so much of my childhood and gave rise to my creative passions. Whether he actually had any talent is not the debate. Whether I enjoy his writing or not, doesn’t matter. It’s his name alone that carries the celebrity weight.

This time, however, Chambers’s has come up trumps. Survival Instinct feels like it’s living in the Underhives. There is a real sense of dirt and grime, of hardship and suffering, of a world torn apart as it purely tries to survive. The setting is perfect. It may simply be that the image of Necromunda, of the darkness and wastelands, that both Chambers and I hold in our heads are created from the same source materials. That we both demand the world of Necromunda as conceived in the mid-1990s. Whether correct or not doesn’t matter, he brought the world I wanted to life and sucked me straight into the book as a result.

The story, however, is also strong enough to keep me there. Chambers’ has balanced the introspective monologue of Mad Donna’s thoughts and reasons, to that of the wider world and the events that explode around her with a precision that feels perfectly in sync. Chopping and changing the viewpoint deftly, never making me feel bored or desperately wishing the story to move on. Equally, he writes with a pacing that works to enhance the novel. CS Goto destroyed Salvation by never changing gear. Chambers, however, knows when to pick up the pace. How to manage the story’s rhythm. The fight scenes come to life as ever more onomatopoeic words spiral round you on the page, increasing the tension and dragging you further into the action.

With the language and pacing of the book having, obviously, taken precise and concentrated construction, it could have quite easily left the plot to fall apart. Survival Instinct could have quickly become predictable and simplistic, or even worse, technical and safe as it drove forward. You may secretly believe that Donna surely can’t die, but that thought never sits fully supported. There is always a lingering doubt that this story, her story, is not as straightforward as some may have written. I never had a sense of how it conclude. Who would live or who would die. It twists and turns with shocking clarity, but never meanders or backtracks. The best comparison I can think of is that, the longer I read, the longer my mind felt more and more like I was reading the Necromunda equivalent of a James Bond story – minus the guns built into umbrellas and grenades built into pens implausibility.

Having spent so long getting frustrated at the way the Underhive of Necormunda being brought to life. Author’s painting a very different world to the one I expected. The stories playing out within those false worlds too generic and disengaging, I was starting to be driven away from the series. It was purely the knowledge that Mad Donna Ulanti was lurking, further in, that had kept me reading book after book. Chambers’s has created a real gem of a book. Whether you’re a fan of Necormunda or not, it is worth reading. Surivival Instinct was the story I was begging for, I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be the only gem in a series of generic sludge, because, Chambers and Mad Donna Ulanti have torn the Underhive wide open and set my bar of expectation very high indeed.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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