Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium by Sandy Mitchell (pseudonym for Alexander Michael Stewart) is a collection of the first three short stories and first three novels featuring Commissar Ciaphas Cain as the main character. This collection was first published in 2007.
I must qualify that I am not an expert on Warhammer 40k. As such, this should be read as a review by someone who has a mild interest in this fictional universe.
The stories are presented as Cain’s memoirs, obviously written in first-person. To almost everyone else, Cain is a hero who is loyal, capable and, unlike some commissars, fair-minded and even caring. By Cain’s own admission, however, he is a coward who just wants to survive and will go to some lengths to avoid danger. And that includes not merely running from imminent danger but also scheming to avoid potentially unpleasant assignments.
Whilst Cain has a certain simplicity about him, Mitchell writes him with some complexity. Cain is basically a mix of the “accidental hero” and the “reluctant hero” who fulfills his duty in his own selfish but not entirely dishonorable way either by fluke and/or by manipulation. Although not the most original idea, the results are at times comical.
Cain is a morally grey character, at least that would register as such intellectually although it may not resonate emotionally. It’s unlikely a reader will “feel” that ambiguity like one might about Garak or Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.
Nonetheless, Cain is an interesting person and, more importantly, relatable and even likable. This is probably because just about anyone can relate to self-preservation. The author has constructed the pathos quite nicely as Cain has some sense of honor. It is not that he wants to maliciously hurt others, he just wants to cover himself which, up to a point, is fair enough. And although he constantly takes this self-centered approach, he still tries to strike a balance and not be too selfish.
Cain’s qualities or lack thereof are most apparent when dealing with recurring characters. One does not expect anyone to care much about strangers but how they treat those who are closer reveals what they truly are. Although Cain admits to using people and merely pretending to care, he actually does care and this is most apparent when he deals with his loyal aide Jurgen and Colonel Kasteen of the 597th, amongst a few others. The irony is that sometimes he realizes that doing the right thing actually benefits him in the long term anyway.
Cain rarely boasts in an overt manner or at least rarely mentions such occasions. He does, however, frequently admit to being a coward as well as to deliberately playing the false modesty card. Whether he realizes it or not, he sometimes is genuinely modest and not as cowardly as he thinks. Mitchell admits to some uncertainty about that in the Introduction:
Is he [Cain] really the cowardly scoundrel he paints himself to be, or far more courageous than he gives himself credit for? To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know, although I suspect a little of both; but that’s one of the real joys of a writer’s life.
Despite that, I think Mitchell does well by giving the audience varying cases, each with sufficient clarity as to what Cain is truly thinking to any reader who is half paying attention but without always being in your face.
At times, the text can use a little less “telling” but, as a memoir, there is the excuse to do so. Whether one considers Cain a reliable narrator is another question. These memoirs are a part of the “Cain archives” and the novels are prefaced by an inquisitor who informs the reader that the writings are placed under an “Inquisitorial seal” (as it obviously contains classified material) and are intended only for study. This, however, does not exclude the possibility that the text has been edited even if the said inquisitor explicitly states that she has merely broken the text into chapters to facilitate reading and her annotations are clearly marked.
To keep the story fresh and provide the bigger picture, the author breaks up Cain’s narration with the occasional snippet from a history book or memoir, frequently one written by the retired General Jenit Sulla. And as part of the joke, her writing is annoyingly bombastic. She was a young officer at the time of the novels who looked up to Cain. The commissar, however, does not like her much. I think the author can add more snippets from varying sources to improve storytelling and comedy.
As for the comedy, one could describe it as on the drier side of things. Since the author plays on the irony of the situation, it vaguely reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s work. The Discworld novels are obviously a different genre and Pratchett regularly employs wordplay, but he does play on the irony of the moment. His comedy is more profound as it is satire of how the world works or doesn’t work as well as commentary on the human condition.
Mitchell, on the other hand, takes a narrower approach; any commentary on humanity and society is made mostly through (the perspective of) Cain. More generally, it does parody itself up to a point and there are a few references to sci-fi films as well as a few jokes on theology. And, of course, some of the characters’ names are biblical and historical references. It’s not as if the stories are laugh-out-loud from start to finish nor are they intended to be, but they are amusing.
In terms of pacing, the author has a real gift for writing novels. Some writers break up their novels into chapters that are more-or-less equal in length. There is nothing wrong with that approach in itself but sometimes it can feel forced. Mitchell does not do that; whatever needs to be told is told, each chapter is as long as it needs to be even if it means some variation. He does well with providing just enough setup for subsequent chapters, thereby creating that tension that continues to captivate the audience. This is a real credit to his writing because the reader knows Cain will make it. The short stories, however, can improve in pacing as they take a little too long to build.
Below are brief descriptions of the works included in the collection in the order in which they are presented. It alternates between short story and novel as the short story serves as an introduction to the novel that directly follows.
Fight or Flight (2002)
In his first assignment as commissar, Cain arrives in Desolatia IV, joining the Valhallan 12th Field Artillery. As the title suggests, it is during Cain’s attempt to avoid danger that he runs into more. It is also during this episode he meets Jurgen who becomes his loyal aide.
For the Emperor (2003)
This novel is set approximately 13 years later, around 931, when Cain is assigned to the newly combined Valhallan regiment formed from the remaining 296th and 301st, subsequently designated the 597th. The plot follows the “Gravalax incident” in which Cain and the 597th deal with a backwater world with substantial Tau influence. Although the Tau are reasonable, a portion of the local population rebels in an organized fashion that hints at a conspiracy.
Echoes of the Tomb (2004)
Set sometime after 928, Cain boards a ship that is supposed to rendezvous with the one that he is actually transferring to. The former is run by the Adeptus Mechanicus heading to the expedition on Interitus Prime. Cain is convinced to visit the planet while waiting for the rendezvous and… well, things can’t possibly go well with tech-priests turning things on.
Caves of Ice (2004)
This novel is set in 932, just over one year after For the Emperor, when Cain and the 597th are assigned to protect a Promethium mine and refinery on the ice-world Simia Orichalcae from an Ork incursion. In order to avoid the main battle, Cain decides to secure the mines instead, being more comfortable in the tunnels. Of course, he runs into more trouble there.
The Beguiling (2003)
This short story is set sometime after Fight or Flight but at least ten years before For the Emperor. Cain is assigned to Slawkenberg to deal with Chaos worshippers. In his boredom, he decides to go for a ride, hoping to check out “recreational possibilities of some of the nearby towns” under the guise of verifying intelligence. Not surprisingly, he gets shot at but then runs into some damsels in distress.
The Traitor’s Hand (2005)
This novel is set in 937 when Cain and the 597th are sent to Adumbria as an advanced party to deal with a Chaos incursion. Unlike the previous stories, more imperial parties are involved (as well as elements of the planetary government) such as Lord General Zyvan, a spook, a navigator and another guard unit with their commissar. This gives the reader an opportunity to see at least a little of how Cain deals with internal politics.
The first short story and novel, Fight or Flight and For the Emperor, are probably the funniest. This is not because of its novelty value; whether intended or not, it is just written that way. As a matter of personal taste, I would like to see more comedy, particularly black comedy, across all the works.
As for action, these stories do not rely on constant cheap action. Since the viewpoint character is not a common soldier, a lot of the actions are numerically small in scale. These are not the type of stories where one is in the middle of armies clashing. But whatever the scale, there are enough action scenes. On balance, these stories are generally well-constructed in every respect, easy to read, amusing and satisfying.