Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium by Sandy Mitchell
Published by Black Library, May 2007
“In the war torn future of the 41st Millennium Commissar Ciaphas Cain, hero of the Imperium, is respected by his peers and an inspiration to his men – at least that's what the propaganda would have you believe. The reality is very different, for Ciaphas is simply looking for an easy life and a way to stay out of peril. However, fate has a habit of throwing him into the deadliest situations, and luck (mixed with self preservation) always manages to pull him through and onto the loftiest of pedestals. To survive Commissar Cain must dodge, bluff and trick his way out of trouble, even if it increases his status beyond his control!”
Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium is the first collection of the Ciaphas Cain stories, bundling together the fist three novels (For the Emperor, Caves of Ice and The Traitor's Hand) and three short stories, all of which take place within the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The books take the form of a series of archives written by Cain himself, but compiled and edited by Amberley Vail, a character who is frequently mentioned and also plays a major role in the first novel. Vail serves as a omniscient narrator, adding footnotes to supply little bits of information and knowledge, or even sometimes humorous comments, as well as interspersing Cain's rather self-centered writings with parts of texts or witness accounts to give context to the events.
In this collection, Cain meets a variety of the Emperor's enemies – The Tau, the Chaos, the Tyranids, the Orks and the Necrons – but he also becomes involved with the most dreaded and destructive of all things, politics. With support from his malodorous aide Jurgen, the Inquisition, a Lord General of the Imperial Guard as well as the Valhallan 597th to which he attached himself, Ciaphas manages to escape a premature death countless times. Despite his self-depreciative attitude, he proves to be more than capable as a Commissar, inspiring those around him and ensuring victory in the name of the Emperor.
The Ciaphas Cain series is notable for many reasons. Unlike a lot of the other existing Warhammer literature, the Cain series is an adventure comedy, albeit one with a strong poker face, and it's also much lighter on the technicalities of the universe. These aspects allow the reader to connect better with the events, but they also remove the knowledge barrier to increase the accessibility to those unversed in the universe. It's also got a relatively high proportion of female characters due to the mixed regiment that Cain is with for the most part, but it also contains one of the few – if only – gay couples in the canon. It's not openly stated that they're a couple, but the hints and actions of Grifen and Magot leave little doubt, not to mention Cain all but states Magot is homosexual.
Mitchell is quite clear in his writing style, and it fits the book perfectly. I rarely found myself puzzled over the events or the dialogue. The combat scenes, of which there are many, were largely clear and seemed believable in both their length and their brutality, but the descriptions of the violence never went beyond what was necessary. The same applies to the descriptions of characters, in that we weren't told everything about them, just some basics. This meant confusing the different characters' identities wasn't particularly an issue, especially as the core cast was largely the same through the three novels. I can't say I found it perfect, however. Due to the novels being interconnected yet standalone, there's a lot of repetition of basic facts. We are frequently reminded in each novel that Jurgen has a distinctive smell, for example, sometimes to the point of it being reiterated a number of times per archive. This repetition can become a little annoying if you read the omnibus cover-to-cover, as it feels like a lot of time is spent going over the same few details. The expletives used in the book tend to be variations on the same couple of words, which also becomes a little tiresome.
Despite some flaws and a distracting level of repetition, Hero of the Imperium is a compelling and highly enjoyable read and one recommended to any military science fiction fan, especially those with anything from a fleeting interest in the Warhammer 40,000 universe to those well versed in it.
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