Low Lives (Black Library Novella Series 2: Book 9)
Low Lives is the ninth book in Black Library’s Novella Series 2, a set of ten Novellas with matching covers, ranging through the various Warhammer settings (40,000; Age of Sigmar; Necromunda), written by a mixture of veteran and new authors and cheap enough for anyone to collect without particularly straining their budget. Both Series 1 and Series 2 helped to bring me back into Warhammer as a hobby and begin reading Black Library fiction again, and Low Lives caught my attention as the sole Necromunda title in the collection. I do have a soft spot for Necromunda fiction, the earlier novels being some of the first Black Library titles I ever read. I enjoy the gang-focused stories and the class-based narrative of slummers against the spire-born, but also the opportunity for more tongue-in-cheek black humour that it provides. That used to be provided by the stories of Kal Jericho (started by the legendary Gordon Rennie and now, delightfully, continued by maestro Josh Reynolds in a new novel) and has now continued into the hands of new author Denny Flowers.
Flowers’ contribution to Necromundan society is Caleb Cursebound, gun for hire and the “underhive’s ninth-most dangerous man”, a label which I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at; Caleb is a typical Necromundan rogue, complete with requisite side-kick and a need to disappear into the underhive quickly and go into hiding after a job gone right. Somewhat stereotypical, perhaps, but he sounded entertaining enough from the back-cover blurb, and I enjoyed the depiction of Caleb on the novella’s cover. Sporting a stylish green scarf and devil-may-care attitude (represented by casually tossing a grenade up and down in his palm) Caleb seemed to stand out from the usual characters in Necromunda tales, and therefore made me hopeful that I was in for a good time in the Underhive. Interestingly, this novella is actually the longer-length follow-up to a short story Flowers penned earlier in the year for Black Library, titled The Hand of Harrow, which had Caleb and ratskin partner Iktomi cause the downfall of a major Up-Spire Lord of a major family; I haven’t read it (yet!) but it led to chaos, destruction and several bounty hunters being sent after the duo. Needing to hide out, and swiftly, the two head to the mining settlement of Hope’s End, but despite the requirement to keep a low profile, Caleb can’t help but get involved in the affairs of the settlement, and the Orlock gangers who have taken over the mine itself.
The trick to a good story is an engaging protagonist, and I took an instant liking to Caleb as a character, with Flower devoting a brief Prologue to his arrival in the mining settlement and his attempts to charm the locals. This is replete with boastful stories of his deeds and general competence, as well as an amusing need to ensure his name is known correctly amongst those he’s aiding (it’s Cursebound, not Curseborn, for the record). I also appreciated that Flower hadn’t taken the lazy route and created a clone of Kal Jericho, instead taking the time to craft his own distinctive character. Whereas Jericho always seems to be three steps ahead of his foes and alert to everything, Caleb is a cheerful drunkard who lurches from adventure to adventure by making wild, insane promises that only a combination of luck, charm and the skills of his colleague Iktomi allow him to achieve. Iktomi, a Ratling sniper, is obviously at the very least an equal partner in their professional relationship, and as interesting a character as Caleb. This is another great achievement, as the ‘assistant’ characters so often fall by the wayside and act as little more than two-dimensional plot-progression tropes.
The whole tone of Caleb’s character, and the overarching plot of the novella, is set early on: drunken boasting, which became more and more boastful as the alcohol got rougher, gets Caleb into a situation where he promises to evict the entire gang from the mine without any bloodshed, and also improve the future of the miners afterwards. That’s not exactly an easy task, especially when Caleb’s plan seems to have rather a lot of question marks in the middle – and the start and end to boot. He’s therefore forced to improvise and rely on Iktomi, while also contending with a vengeful hunter pacing them through the grim industrial ruins of the mine and its surroundings.
Perhaps inevitably, things don’t quite go to plan for Caleb, and his time in the mining encampment is extended rather more than he anticipated. That’s a good decision by Flower, as it allows him to expand on the surroundings and the settlers themselves. We get an in-depth look at what a desperate, isolated underhive settlement looks like, and how grim their existence is even when compared to the usual kill-or-be-killed nature of the Necromunda setting. There are also some fantastic descriptions of the environment that really complements the Wild West atmosphere, especially the really imaginative inverted mountains of slag and ash that have formed from the ceiling of the underhive and then hang menacingly above the settlement and the mine itself. It’s a distinctive area and therefore a memorable one, which in turn helps to make the novella so enjoyable, especially when most tales in Necromunda seem set in the hives themselves or the industrial wastes underneath them.
What made Low Lives stand out for me, and made it such an exceptional debut (much like fellow new author Thomas Parrott in his novella Isha’s Lament) is Flower’s focus on writing a powerful and somewhat unconventional story that avoids the usual tropes of the setting. What once would have been the natural endpoint of a Necromunda story is barely even the mid-way point of this novella, and instead Flower follows the story through to its natural conclusion: this is a tale of consequences as much as it is about vengeance, or the adventures of a luck-tinged charismatic chancer. That direction gives it greater depth and power than many other Black Library tales, and I’m impressed that Flowers pulled it off in such a polished and impressive manner in his debut novella.
Low Lives is a fun, entertaining and fast-paced tale that is deftly intertwined with some brilliant characterisation and a more in-depth plot than is perhaps the standard for the Necromunda setting. That all results in an engaging and even thought-provoking plot with a surprising (yet thematically fitting) ending that promises more adventures for Caleb Cursebound and his ally Iktomi. In my opinion, it would be foolish of Black Library to not exploit Flower’s obvious skills as an author and provide him with the opportunity to write more – and longer – stories in the Necromunda universe, or perhaps related settings. I will be watching with great interest to see what Flower will do next, and I suspect a great many others will as well.