‘Ciaphas Cain’ book series review
By Duncan Fingarson, Contributor
To talk about Ciaphas Cain, Sandy Mitchell’s questionably heroic commissar, I need to start by talking about Warhammer 40,000. Games Workshop’s sci-fi setting has long been one of my favourites, and Cain may well be the best character in it. 40,000 years from now in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, humanity is embroiled in a galaxy-wide war for survival against the forces of Chaos and the Alien. The monolithic institutions of the Empire of Man are huge, unwieldy, and bureaucratic, and the Imperium of Man is in constant danger of falling apart at its own hands, or the hands of its enemies.
The first line of defence against the threat from outside is the Imperial Guard, vast armies tithed from the Imperium’s worlds. Their morale officers are commissars, tasked with ensuring the men and women of the Guard don’t break and run at the first sight of the galaxy’s horrors. Enter Cain, a commissar who would like nothing more than to break and run at the first sight of the galaxy’s horrors. The problem is that everyone else thinks he’s a hero, so running away would damage his reputation.
Most of the series is, by now, collected into omnibus editions. The first of these is Hero of the Imperium, covering three books, each of which is preceded by a short story selected to lead into that book. The first of these is also the very first Cain story, detailing the point at which his reputation started to gather momentum, and how the immensely useful and entirely unimaginative Gunner Jurgen came to be his aide. The first book is For the Emperor, which introduces the regiment Cain will be attached to for most of the other books, as well as the Imperial Inquisitor who shows up on occasion to make his life interesting and complicated.
By far the best part of the books is the narrative style. The books are written from Cain’s perspective, with occasional interjections from Inquisitor Amberley in the form of footnotes or appended chapters. Cain’s voice is dry and witty, and the first-person perspective offers much-needed insight into the disconnect between what the commissar is thinking, and what he actually does. The concept wouldn’t work nearly as well if you only saw Cain’s actions without hearing his thoughts.
Of course, the series does have a few problems. Each book is largely self-contained—which is great for people just starting with the books—but it means that there’s a fair bit of recycled description as the major characters are re-introduced at the beginning each time. The author has a habit of ending chapters with lines in the vein of “If I only knew what would happen next…” which can be a little grating after a while. A very small number of the situations Cain finds himself in are resolved in improbably fortuitous ways.
However, these are still some of the best Warhammer 40,000 books out there, and they serve as a great introduction to the setting.
A couple of the later books have connecting plotlines, so I recommend starting at the beginning. The omnibus editions aren’t expensive, but they might be a little difficult to track down outside of the Black Library’s official website. If you can find them, I strongly recommend picking them up. It helps if you’re already a fan of Warhammer 40,000, but if you aren’t, Ciaphas Cain might just make you into one.