Review: Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium (Omnibus)

Posted by DarkChaplain at 4/20/2012
This time I'm reviewing not an individual novel, short story or audio drama, but am going for the big bunch: an Omnibus. Including three novels plus incentives in the form of three gap-filling shortstories, not only am I trying to take a look at an individual plot, presentation and character development within a single book, but rather a package deal. I'll keep it rather short on the individual novels' contents and try to judge the Omnibus as a whole.

Can Ciaphas Cain uphold his reputation over the course of three novels? We're about to find out...

The Story:
"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!

Featuring futuristic military action, thrills and humour, Hero of the Imperium collects the novels For the Emperor, Caves of Ice and The Traitor’s Hand, plus three exclusive short stories."

General Information
Being an Omnibus, Hero of the Imperium includes the first three novels of the Ciaphas Cain series, plus three short stories. They're all set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and due to the style of the books, a solid amount of pre-knowledge will benefit the reader. Without this knowledge about 40k, you'd surely miss a lot of cross-references and jokes, which make up a good part of the series' entertainment value.

The stories themselves revolve around an Imperial Commissar, charged with maintaining a healthy morale at a newly-merged Imperial Guard regiment. Due to heavy combat losses, one of the rare mixed-gender regiments is formed, and Cain is forced to shape the rival troopers into a new, reliable unit that stands together on the field of battle. The command structure is getting restored, the 296th and 301st Valhallan regiments become the 597th and Cain earns the regiment's respect, which is vital to every Commissar. Charged with the task of maintaining morale and dealing with infractions, most Commissars are just as trigger-happy when dealing with friendlies as they are when pointing their pistol at the enemy. Expectedly, these autonomous figures are generally hated among the troopers, which is not the most secure state of things, especially during war. Ciaphas, however, wants to save his hide, and only reluctantly punishes his regiment in severe ways, playing the good guy to gain both trust and support - which only furthers his heroic reputation earned over his years of active service. Of course, to maintain his face and reputation, Cain has to play his role consistently, which often leads him directly into danger and situations of sure death - which he'd have undeniably found by now, if it wasn't for his ressourceful aide Jurgen.

It is this spiral of maintaining his reputation and having to deal with its results, both good and bad, that make up the heroic stories of Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium, and grants the reader access to a very close view on the command structure of the Imperial Guard, the way they fight and the way they deal with the time between fights, and combined with Ciaphas Cain's very own thoughts, opinions and fears, the series provides an unprecedented richness of detail on the inner working of the armies of the Imperium.
Of course this package also comes with a good dose of humor, sarcasm and curses, which break the mold of your typical 40k stories in a very refreshing way.

Written in-lore by fictional Commissar Ciaphas Cain, celebrated Hero of the Imperium, these stories consist of multiple layers, which work together to create a comprehensive account of the events described:
  • The memoirs of Cain, written by himself, presented in first person view
  • Editorials and footnotes written by Inquisitor Amberley Vail, who also knows Cain in person and met him on a multitude of occassions, usually making life harder for him
  • Selected excerpts from various sources to expand on Cain's personal views, fill the gaps left in the telling and put them into a wider scale
Luckily, Sandy Mitchell manages to give all of these a very specific character, from Ciaphas and his thought processes over Amberley and her more professional standpoint and even the excerpts are written in varying styles depending on the fictional author. Indeed, some of these excerpts are written in an almost painful way, which Amberley alludes to, suggesting the reader to skip the next part at times, or hinting at the unprofessional style of the excerpt's author.

This mix, as complicated as it may sound or look at first, is a fantastic thing I appreciate very much, as it provides balance and different views on matters Cain himself might look at with heavy prejudices, or simply gets wrong in his tale - in fact, as much knowledge he shows in areas that might save his life, he has his oversights and flaws, which often get directly addressed by a footnote or two. It is these inaccuracies that make Cain, despite his incredible luck and reputation, a believable character with clearly visible flaws (which, admittedly, he explains often enough on his own). However, this mix is only around in the full novels in case of the Hero of the Imperium omnibus - the short stories are unedited pieces straight out of Ciaphas' works.

These points make me feel that the Ciaphas Cain series is just as much about perception as it is about the Imperial Guard, Commissars, wars, heroism or simply service in the Emperor's name. It does never get entirely clear if Ciaphas Cain, who describes himself as a habitual liar, really is the coward forced into action by necessity or the actual modest hero people see him as - there are plenty of ways to look at Cain, and it is up to the reader to decide what to believe about him.

To end this section, let me again point out how the omnibus itself is structured.
Starting with a foreword by author Sandy Mitchell about the origins of the series, and the character he created, the book quickly gets to the first ever Ciaphas Cain story, Fight or Flight from 2002. Next up is the first novel called For the Emperor from 2003, which as a title holds both an important position in the whole 40k franchise and alludes to Ciaphas' selfish character. Bridging the gap to the next full novel is Echoes of the Tomb, released in 2004 and setting the stage for Caves of Ice, the second novel which got released in the same year. The final two parts of the omnibus, namely the shortstory The Beguiling and novel number three, The Traitor's Hand, interact in a similar way as the former two, albeit The Beguiling was released in 2003 as the second Cain story, with the third novel appearing much later in 2005.
All of the included stories build up on each other, cross-referring to each other on a multitude of occassions and knitting a tight profile of Cain's career and character. Read on to learn more about the individual contents of the stories, I promise I'll keep the spoilers down.

Plot Overview
Fight or Flight
"Ciaphas Cain's early years come to light as he fights alongside the Valhallan 12th Field Artillery on the world of Desolatia."
In the wider scope, Fight or Flight describes one of the earliest events in Cain's commissarial career, and introduces both him and his aide Jurgen. Chronologically this story is the first one as well; every over shortstory and novel being set at a later point in Cain's life. The story itself is rather simple, but sets the flags for Cain the Hero. Oh, and did I mention the attacking Tyranids?

For the Emperor
"On an outpost Imperial world on the fringes of Tau space, Ciaphas Cain and his regiment of Valhallan Guard, find themselves in the middle of a war. As the Imperial Guard struggle to contain worldwide civil insurrection, can the wily Commissar Cain identify the real villain before the planet is lost to the Imperium forever?"
I must admit, by now my memory of For the Emperor is indeed a bit hazy by now, but what I remember of it has been a great read from start to finish.
Set on Gravalax, a world suffering from a stalemate between the imperial forces and the Tau Empire, steadily expanding its borders, For the Emperor makes for a highly political and diplomatical tale. Apparently not only the Imperium and the Tau are trying to take a hold on Gravalax, but also a mysterious third party trying to incite a war between both forces has a few pawns in play. Cain enters the stage alongside the support troops of the newly merged 597th Valhallan regiment of the Imperial Guard, and is forced to join sides with the Tau to uncover the schemes working in the background. What he is bound to find is both unsettling and more dangerous than the threat the Tau pose.

This is the first story which features Inquisitor Amberley Vail, who sadly wasn't really featured in the other two included books, despite having a cameo in both. It is her who reveals quite major information on Cain's aide Jurgen, which is vital to the full understanding of the series. Another thing it presents, just as importantly as the mentioned revelations, is the founding of the 597th, which Cain would serve for a very long time without getting shot in the back by his own troopers. The early struggles of the regiment are both interesting to read and they also give the reader an understanding of Cain's place among the Guard, his work-philosophy and how he came to be so respected amongst the men and women of Valhalla.

Echoes of the Tomb
"Ciaphas Cain battles alongside the Reclaimers Space Marine Chapter against a mysterious foe."
Now this description feels entirely inaccurate to me. While the Reclaimers are featured in this short story (and would be heavily featured in the 7th Ciaphas Cain novel, released in 2010), it is only during the last paragraphs that Cain encounters them. Instead, the story focuses on the events that happened when Cain was supposed to meet up with the Reclaimers for a mission but ended up waiting at the site of an expedition of the Mechanicum until the Reclaimers' arrival. It depicts very nicely that some things should never be stirred in their sleep, and sets the stage quite impressively for Caves of Ice.

Caves of Ice
"On the ice world of Simia Orichalcae a spate of mysterious disappearances is causing unrest amongst the mine-workers, and, as senior officer, Cain is nominated to investigate. Unbeknownst to him, the planet is right in the path of a major ork incursion and, as the savage greenskins attack, a malevolent evil begins to stir deep in the ice caves."
This second novel shares some essential parts with Echoes of the Tomb, which, as an event in Cain's life, serves as an important plot device throughout the story. Cain is forced to hold his own fears in check to maintain his reputation, while diving straight into the depths of his nightmares. The imperial defenders find themselves in a struggle against time, which only succeeds due to Cain and Jurgen's ressourcefulness.
While the story features plenty of twists, it somehow felt rather repetitive to me during the third quarter. It kept me going nonetheless, however, due to the deep trouble our main character found himself in, and there's enough incentive to motivate the reader to read yet another chapter. What I found very enjoyable were Cain's interactions with the troopers he attached himself to, and the different civilians involved in the defence. Seeing the Valhallans' Colonel Regina Kasteen and her second-in-command Major Ruput Broklaw scaring the arrogant Mechanicum and Administratum representatives was a pleasant occurance, and also the stark contrast between the native valhallan iceworlders and Ciaphas in the cold of Simia Orichalcae.
Overall this was an enjoyable read, which introduced quite a few characters that the reader may meet again in the following novels.

The Beguiling
"On Slawkenberg, Ciaphas Cain is a long way from the front lines and that's precisely what he wanted. However, Chaos is present on Slawkenberg and Cain finds himself back in the firefight against his better judgement. "
Being the second-ever story written about Ciaphas Cain, The Beguiling is quite essential to the Commissar's life, as it marks one of his early encounters with Chaos, and proves the strength of his character in the face of temptation. Interestingly, it serves as sort of prologue to The Traitor's Hand, and does that job rather well.

The Traitor's Hand
"Ciaphas Cain's latest missions takes him and his Valhallan regiment to the planet of Adumbria to defend against an approaching Chaos invasion. However, infighting with fellow Imperial Guard regiments and the uprising of a sinister cult on the planet puts paid to any hopes of an easy life."
The Traitor's Hand, hands down, is the best of the included stories if you ask me. It delivers a healthy balance between action, diplomacy, conflicting cultures and insane heretics. From wonderful descriptions of the planet Adumbria and its unique status among the myriad worlds of the Imperium to the almost blasphemous behavior of Cain towards the pious Tallarns, one of the other regiments involved, this novel simply keeps you excited and reading, manages to get plenty of chuckles out of you and even adds a slight horror-factor to the story. The 597th Valhallan gets a lot more action than before, allowing the reader to experience the iceworlders in solid action rather than continuing the waiting game seen in the earlier novels. This is the war the books have managed to avoid so far, and it is bloody, cruel and unpredictable.
Above all, The Traitor's Hand gives Cain more opportunities to further his reputation than I thought possible, even providing him with a rival Commissar from his days in the Schola Progenium, who is presented as the absolute opposite of the good Ciaphas. This makes for more than just fun, but also adds an immense tension to the book, which manifests in the last stage of the story and delivers a very pleasant and satisfying ending to the omnibus as a whole.

Final Words & Verdict
The Ciaphas Cain series might not suit everybody's taste, but it is certainly a 40k subseries I'd recommend to fans of the franchise. Even if the stories appear to be quite formulaic (Cain considers the upcoming mission an easy one, gets into trouble, everything seems lost, Cain saves the day), they are no less exciting. In fact, despite knowing that Cain survives, it is always quite questionable how he manages to escape the heat without losing face, and what is the price for survival. This makes for enough of an uncertainty to enjoy the tension building up throughout the stories.

Let me once again stress the immense entertainment value this omnibus volume holds for the reader. The books are straddling the field of 40k fiction in ways you'd hardly find anywhere else. Taking themselves serious enough to tell a comprehensive and authentic story of the Commissar's service attached to the Imperial Guard, I didn't feel like the sarcasm, curses, ignorance or snide comments featured are detracting from their internal realism. The inner quarrels between the imperial institutions representatives, the prejudices between Guard and Mechanicum and Cain's antipathy towards certain characters make the cast feel very much alive and comprehensible. Even side characters got their own characteristics, making the Guard look much less of cannon fodder as they're usually depicted in the usual 40k Bolter-Porn novels.
And at the end of the omnibus, I admit, it was like I knew these Valhallan troopers much better than your typical Space Marine squad or bunch of heretics. They've made an impression on me, and it will probably last well until I'll manage to start the second omnibus, and grow even further as a result. Ciaphas Cain brings the reader as close to the typical Guard regiment as it may get, which I am very much thankful for.

Hero of the Imperium is a damn good read, especially for those who are getting tired of brute force and forcefully heroic characters and know quite a bit about the franchise. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and will keep a lot of fantastic scenes in good memory. The 9th Ciaphas Cain novel cannot get announced soon enough... I clearly recommend picking this omnibus up!

Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium on the Black Library Website

About the Author
DarkChaplain is a big nerd who spends too much time reading and thinking about books, organizing them on his ever-growing shelves, and yet increases his backlog by the month. DC is also an avid Gamer and owns more PC games than he'll ever be able to play. He is certainly spoiled for choice!
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain

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