Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sandy Mitchell - Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium

Ciaphas Cain is a hero of the Imperium. He is a commissar that knows and inspires his men, that leads from the front, and that has saved his soldiers, his sector, and his hide more times than can be counted. More than any of that, Ciaphas Cain is secretly a coward. Or, at least, so he believes himself to be. Hero of the Imperium collects the first three of Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novels along with three short pieces. These are the story of the man behind the legend, the exploits of the unbelievably incredible commissar in his own self effacing words, the three books excerpts culled from his sprawling unpublished memoir that have been compiled and annotated by the Inquisitor Vail of the Ordos Xenos. 

Mitchell is a fantastically clever writer. By balancing Cain's narrative with added fictional histories (each of which, of course, is crippled by its invented author's obsessions) and copious footnotes courtesy of our inquisitorial editor, Mitchell manages to combine a deeply in character, and deeply self-centered, narrative with a grasp of the wider picture. The footnotes, in particular, are enjoyable. Mitchell generally refrains from using them as a formatting excuse for endless info dumps and, as the reader continues through the books, the relationship between Inquisitor Vail, who Cain comes to know as Amberly, and the commissar grows increasingly amusing and even warming.

The real joy, however, comes from Cain's narration. The famed commissar, you see, is boundlessly and delightfully sarcastic. Many of the best lines come in descriptions of Cain's malodorous aide, Jurgen, such as when Jurgen manages to look as though his uniform never quite touched his body, which given his casual attitude to personal hygiene and perpetual eruptions of psoriasis, you could hardly blame it for (p. 516). Furthermore, Mitchell has a great deal of fun with some of the sillier or less consistent aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, such as when Amberly adds in a footnote that: Sometimes [the necrons] seem almost preternaturally able to detect an enemy, while at others, as in this instance, they overlook targets almost literally under their noses (p. 413). Finally, the familiar Chaos battle cry (Blood for the Blood God!) is here met with "Fine, he can have yours." (p. 684) But despite how funny the books can be, Mitchell knows restraint well and never allows himself to descend into simple parody. For all the crackling humor on display within them, Cain's adventures manage to keep the reader's invested in the characters and their struggles.

Needless to say, Ciaphas Cain is the chief character of his series, and his purported heroism and omnipresent terror might well be the series' calling card. Nonetheless, Cain is never really cowardly in the way of characters like Flashman, whom he is often compared to (in the book's introduction, as well as elsewhere). Cain does, of course, do his best to escape danger, and the author/Emperor/demands of plot always smack him in the thick of it as his reward. But there are just as many times when, for all his frightened mental monologuing, he willingly charges into the depths of hell. In an attempt to rationalize his actions, he writes: It all came down to picking the course of action that offered the greatest chance of getting out with my hide intact, however great the immediate risk might be (p. 705). But while that might rule out selflessness, it certainly does not rule out bravery.

Other quotations occasionally slip out that do even more to damage the idea of craven Cain. Once, certain he was staring death in the face, he reveals that he was determined to defy it for as long as possible (p. 289) – hardly the thought process of a fainthearted man. Despite Cain's constant attempts to establish and maintain his supposedly fraudulent reputation for heroism through elaborate speeches, it seems, by the volume's end, that it's actually his cowardice that needs justification. Judged solely by his deeds, Cain is every bit the hero he is proclaimed to be, and his favorite rhetorical trick – feigning modesty to increase his reputation – works just as well on the reader as on the soldiers.

No matter what their setting and broad plot outlines might make you think, the Ciaphas Cain novels are only tangentially Military Science Fiction. True, each of them does take place in a warzone. But the war is never Cain's primary focus. Instead, he is always off to the sidelines, hunting down some (in the first two novels, literally) underground piece of intrigue and averting a disaster far greater than the one everyone else is focused on.

Cain's fantastically titled debut, For the Emperor!, establishes the formula to come with style. Cain and the Valhallan regiment that he serves with find themselves in a tense standoff with the Tau. Neither side wants to fight, but they are being pushed towards armed conflict by a shadowy conspiracy that neither can quite spot. The book introduces Cain, begins his relationship with Amberly, gives him a large cast of supporting characters to play off and look at suspiciously, and manages a nice contrast between the powerful and alien, but communicative and reasonably sane, Tau and the mindlessly brutal Tyrannid threat they find below.

The follow up, Caves of Ice, is not as successful, in large part because it's a smaller and less interesting retread of its predecessor. Like inFor the Emperor!, the Guard is here stationed on a world to oppose one foe (this time the Orks), while Cain begins to see a far greater threat lurking underground (this time, the Necrons), which he then goes into the tunnels to pursue, until he eventually comes into horrific contact with it, and loses everyone he had with him. The key problem is not even that the two books are so similar; Mitchell's writing is amusing enough for me to (somewhat) forgive him that. But Caves of Ice's cast is miniature compared to For the Emperor!'s, and what few characters there are spend the vast majority of it off screen. Amberly doesn't enter until the end, and, here, both alien threats are of the mindless slaughter variety. All of this means that Cain has no one to really interact with, and he spends his time laboriously entering and exiting the same set of tunnels and going about his mission.

Thankfully, the last novel, The Traitor's Hand, is a great deal more fun and plays with the formula just enough to keep things fresh. Cain and the Guard are deployed to stop a ravaging Chaos fleet, but, before it can arrive, they find themselves embroiled in a guerilla war against a local Chaos cult, which is hell-bent on summoning a rather nasty demon. Though both serving the Ruinous Powers, the two Chaos factions despise each other even more than they hate the Imperium. The interplay between the two, and the way that the great secret danger part of the plot here comes out to interact with the rest before the big finish, serve to keep everything more nimble and exciting, even if each of the mystery's pieces are gift wrapped and delivered in the most convenient way possible and at the perfect (read: last) moment. Unlike For the Emperor!, which stayed relatively still geographically, and Caves of Ice, which moved about but had a whole planet painted with the same brush, The Traitor's Hand ferries Cain between all sorts of different settings and situations. Best of all, it gives him a myriad of secondary characters to mess with, including a rival in the Commissariat for him to humiliate and then pay the costs for doing so. I must say, though, that the ending confrontation between Cain and the "preternaturally seductive" (p. 749) and brutally destructive demon Emili was somewhat odd to read about right before I went to go speak to my not particularly destructive girlfriend, Emily.

The three short stories included successfully add to Cain's story and experiences, albeit in different ways and with differing levels of success. "Fight or Flight," which opens the volume, gives us a good first glimpse of Cain and some of the most convincing cowardice-cum-accidental-heroics we get through the whole thing. "Echoes of the Tomb" serves mostly to fill us in on Cain's glimpse of the necrons before he has to fight them full-time in Caves of Ice. The majority of it is the slow decision to head towards, and then journey to, the site where he's to meet them, and the payoff, when it comes, mostly consists of Cain running about frantically for a moment or two before the tale abruptly cuts off with his rescue. It's not bad, but it's not much of anything good either, and it suffers more than the other two by the narrow focus forced upon it by the lack of other perspectives and footnotes. Finally, "The Beguiling" shows Cain's encounter with Chaos (and the demon Emili) before The Traitor's Hand. In addition to providing welcome backstory and emotional depth to the events of the novel, it's an enjoyable short story in its own right, which makes good use of Cain's wit, some of genre fiction's more questionable tropes, and dramatic irony.

Though somewhat formulaic and predictable, Sandy Mitchell's first three Ciaphas Cain novels are simply an incredible amount of fun. Dive in if you are looking for some light, pulpy, and thoroughly amusing Science Fiction, and remember: Regrets are a waste of good drinking time. (p. 331)


  1. That was a great review. I think I'll have to read these eventually.

    Have you heard from the Black Library, by the way?

  2. I haven't. They only reply if interested, so sending it in was likely the last contact we'll have and the last thing the tale'll do. Alas.