Ciaphas Cain - Saviour of the Imperium

March 6, 2020

 

Rating: B+ (overall), B (The Emperor's Finest) / A- (The Last Ditch) / A- (The Greater Good)

Length: 875 pages, standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

 

Have I really not posted any Ciaphas Cain omnibus reviews?  That's a surprise, considering that series is my favorite of the Warhammer 40K novel selection, but I suppose my last rereading of Defender of the Imperium was slightly before I started this site.  Well then, high time I change that before things go ploin-shaped.

 

Cain is a commissar, which (for people who aren't familiar with WH40K) means that he's a specialist outside of the military's standard chain of command who's in charge of maintaining discipline/morale and providing sanity checks for the commanding officers.  Most commissars are stone-faced zealots as likely to shoot their own troops in the head for slighting their honor as they are to do something effective.  Cain is very much not a typical commissar.  He's compassionate (because being nice to other people with guns a good first step towards avoiding "accidental" friendly fire), merciful (because someone who thinks they owe him a favor is more likely to bail him out of a tough spot), and known to always find a way to save the day (because a plan with a slight chance of success is better than a plan that guarantees death).

 

In short, Cain's a coward who's primarily interested in looking after his own skin, but he gained a reputation for being a brave hero after bumbling into killing the leader of an alien invasion while trying to run away in his first bit of active duty, and so he keeps having to find his way out of one insane war zone after another to keep anyone from finding out the truth (since, this being WH40K, logic would dictate that a Hero of the Imperium martyr is more valuable to the imperial war effort than a living hole in the propaganda machine).

 

The books are presented as a series of memoirs written by Cain after a nigh-unprecedented retirement from active duty, delivered to Inquisitor Amberley Vail as a sort of confession, which she's annotated and interspersed with other corroborating or otherwise useful excerpts prior to distribution within the Imperial Inquisition.  It's not quite as amazingly well done as Bram Stoker's Dracula, but Mitchell does an excellent job of not letting the framing device get in the way of reading the stories, which is more than I can say about the actual annotations in my Clark Ashton Smith collection.

 

The Cain stories have a reputation for following a common formula, and the ones in this omnibus don't do much to deviate from that.  Cain finds out he's being deployed somewhere, seems eager to go because it doesn't sound too bad, and makes a hindsight comment that "if I'd known what I was in for, I would've just gotten myself arrested for cowardice" or some such.  When he gets there, he's expecting to deal with some relatively low-risk threat (usually human dissidents, orks, or tau).  In the course of doing something that he expects to be a bit of busywork to keep him safe while the action heats up elsewhere, things go ploin-shaped when he finds out that there's actually a more serious threat on the scene (usually tyranids, necrons, or Chaos).  Things get bleak, and then Cain pulls off some crazy gambit (likely as not to involve the psychic-blocking ability of his aide Jurgen) and comes off looking like a crazy hero for it.  Insert a few recurring remarks about Cain showing modesty to make people think he's even more heroic which often gets him mixed up in even more of a mess than it's worth, mentions of how disgusting any non-Valhallans aside from Cain find his signature tanna tea, mild confusion about ork terminology that gets accompanied by an annotation from Amberley doubling down on the comedic irony to the reader, and jokes about Jurgen's hygiene (the possessive form of his name should indicate that puns are also on the table), and you've got a pretty good idea of what you're getting into.

 

The thing is, though, Mitchell makes it work.  While the broad strokes are formulaic, the details are different in each story, the characters are generally pulled off well enough to be enjoyable (aside from a certain rival commissar in Hero of the Imperium that was just The Scrappy), and the humor is restrained enough to not outshine the drama.  As an added bonus, this omnibus also tends to focus on Cain's time away from the Valhallan 597th (the regiment that he's with almost exclusively in the earlier stories), so there's more diversity in the secondary characters, too.

 

"The Emperor's Finest" is about Cain's time as a liaison attached to a Space Marine company.  As Counter did with the Grey Knights omnibus, Mitchell showed off the human side of the Reclaimers' battle brothers, making them come off as actual (if no longer quite human) people, unlike certain other authors.  The way that the story's going to go is predictable enough to someone familiar with a certain WH40K board game that was adapted into a video game, but again, as with the Cain stories as a whole, knowing "what" is going to happen doesn't diminish the enjoyment of reading "how" it happens.  After all, a great book should be at least as pleasurable to read the second time as it is the first, regardless of knowing the details of the plot.  This was the weakest of the novels in this omnibus, since it suffered from something of a Romantic Plot Tumor.

 

"The Last Ditch" does see Cain back with the Valhallan 597th as they're going to do what they do best (kill orks).  Of course, this being a Cain story, things get worse.  It introduced a young commissar, the newly commissioned Forres, who pulls double duty as an early foil to Cain who comes around to respecting and even admiring him after seeing his methods in action (without knowing his actual thoughts, of course).  Doing that in a satisfying manner, and without the romantic inanity that "The Emperor's Finest" had, made the story far more enjoyable than what would've otherwise been a rather by-the-numbers work.  Again, Mitchell's strength is his work with characters, not his innovative plots.

 

Lastly of the novels, "The Greater Good" was something of a nostalgia trip, featuring the returns of some major characters from the previous omnibuses (Lord General Zyvan and tau diplomat El'hassai) along with the Reclaimers.  This was the strongest of the three novels, managing to both highlight the comedy of politics between the internal factions of the Imperium without taking it to the point of absurdity and still have some poignant moments of very human tragedy and frailty.  "The Last Ditch" was more enjoyable to read in the moment, but "The Greater Good" was definitely the better work upon further reflection.

 

But that's not all, of course (well, almost, but I'll get to that).  As with the other Cain omnibuses, this included a handful of additional short stories, though they were all shoved to the end this time instead of being placed in chronological order with the three novels.  "Old Soldiers Never Die" was another reunion tour story, being a novella with a return appearance by Cain's original regiment, the Valhallan 12th Field Artillery.  It was very much another formulaic Cain story in compressed form, and the lack of time to develop any characters further than what Mitchell's shown previously did hamstring it.  The other three short stories ("The Smallest Detail", "The Little Things", and "A Mug of Recaff") were very brief slice-of-life moments, the first and last of which focused on Jurgen instead of Cain.  On the one hand, it was nice to see Mitchell doing something different.  On the other, none of them really did enough to register on any greater scale, so I don't think anything would've been lost if they'd been omitted.

 

All in all, if you've read any of the earlier Cain books, you probably know what to expect from Saviour of the Imperium.  It doesn't try to do anything particularly new, but Mitchell is good at what he's good at, and he doesn't disappoint here.  I wouldn't mind seeing more authors try to bring out some of the lighter side of the WH40K setting, but aside from a scant few moments in the otherwise dull and trite Path of the Dark Eldar omnibus, Cain's all we've got in that regard, and I don't find him wanting.  There's something to be said for sticking to doing what you know how to do, and seeing as Mitchell does toe the line between "good" and "great" while doing that, I can't really complain about it.  Recommended for readers who enjoy a touch of humor and humanity in their grimdark science fantasy.

 

Rating: B+ (overall), B (The Emperor's Finest) / A- (The Last Ditch) / A- (The Greater Good)

Length: 875 pages, standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

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