“Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war.”
With that tagline, the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game sets the tone to an eternal conflict where the forces of humanity fight constantly to preserve their empire from the ravages of the alien, the mutant, and the heretic. Man flies through space in giant cathedral ships to fight in World War One-style battles of attrition against alien horrors and the forces of Chaos, all in the name of the dying Emperor of Mankind. Whether it is the ubiquitous space marines or the cry of metal boxes, Warhammer 40k‘s influence throughout science fiction gaming and literature is ever present. And while Harry Potter memes flooded the political discourse of the past presidential election, so too did memes of the Emperor of Mankind.
The ever-present war in the galaxy of Warhammer 40k lends itself well towards the tales of last stands and human perseverance in the face of impossible odds and military disaster. Unfortunately, many of the Black Library’s authors have mistaken the darker and edgier mandate of the setting for license to indulge in the excesses of horror and atrocity. (“Blood for the blood god,” indeed.) Occasionally, the wanton murder is interrupted by some of the worst military blunders a general could make, just to increase the suffering. From this immature confusion of darkness with profundity is born the genre of grimderp, where the excesses of darkness and grime become parody. At the other end of the spectrum is Commissar Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium, and Warhammer 40k‘s answer to Harry Flashman. Like his literary inspiration, the true story of this celebrated hero instead reveals the plans of a malingering rogue.
But where George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman is a proud coward who recalls his rakish deeds fondly and his bedroom conquests fondle-ly, Ciaphas Cain is driven by pragmatism, as he wants to retire at the end of a long career with the Imperial Guard. He picks his assignments and duties based upon what will most likely keep him alive. The perverse angel of serendipity, however, typically has other plans for him, as more than one of his “advances to the rear” have been interrupted by ravenous Tyranids or marauding Ork hordes. Cain also feels the burden of wearing the Hero of the Imperium mantle, as his motives never truly match the virtue of his reputation. As for Cain’s roguishness and womanizing, most are regulated to mere boasting. One might suspect this is because Cain’s lover, secret agent Amberley Vail, is editing his papers. Vail’s footnotes add context and charm to Cain’s adventures, even if she grows outright catty whenever Cain’s narration tarries too long on another woman. However, the truth of the matter is that, compared to the famed rakes and rogues of literature, Cain is rather tame in his exploits. This is Warhammer 40k, after all, so the battlefield takes precedence over the politics. Cain is an admirable fighter, skilled with laser pistol and chainsaw sword, and unlike Flashman, you don’t have to corner him to get him to fight.
Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium is an omnibus, collecting three short stories and three novels into one volume. Of note are “Fight or Flight,” Commissar Cain’s first mission and introduction to his aide Jurgen; For the Emperor, which unites Cain with both the regiment he would spend much of his career with, the Vahallan 597th, and the lovely Amberley Vail; and Caves of Ice, where the survival of the 597th depends on Cain restarting a mine before Orks overrun them. “Echoes of the Tomb,” “The Beguiling,” and The Traitor’s Hand round out the collection. Each of the six stories follows the same pattern. Commissar Cain and his attached unit are drawn into conflict with one alien race, only to find out that a second alien race is involved as well. As Cain tries to stack the deck in favor of his survival, he instead is thrust into the hottest schwerpunktpivot point of the battle by the serendipitous hand of Fate. (Remember, the military definition of serendipity is “I screwed up, but things turned out better than if I hadn’t.”) It is to Sandy Mitchell’s credit that he mines the vast setting of the Warhammer 40kuniverse to make each story unique, keeping the stories fresh as Cain moves from one galactic crisis to the next. And while most media tie-in novels assume familiarity with the universe, a newbie to Warhammer 40k could Cain’s adventures fighting Tyranids, Orks, and Chaos without resorting to internet searches to understand what was happening. It serves well as an introduction to the universe, even if it focuses on the Imperial Guard instead of the more iconic space marines.
Whether Cain matches chainsaws in a duel against a demonically empowered space marine, hunts xenomorph-inspired Genestealers through derelict spacecraft, or flees from the Tyranid eating machines in a Jurassic Park-inspired car chase, Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium delivers on the adventure expected from a tie-in novel. But by making Cain a coward (or extremely pragmatic when it comes to survival), the collection not only puts a fresh spin on the military adventure, it blunts the excesses of Warhammer 40k’s grim darkness. A slippery soul like Cain cannot exist in a setting where every battle is either Stalingrad or the Charge of the Light Brigade. There must be some hope of survival (or food, drink, and women) to drive a coward towards the next misadventure, even if the light at the end of the tunnel is coming from the business end of a Necron’s energy rifle. The fun is in watching Cain bluff, fight, or run out of each new predicament, and then seeing how his superiors misinterpret the facts in his favor. And at a time where remakes are rampant, it is a breath of fresh air to see an adaptation of a story to a new set of characters and a new setting instead. Of all the Flashman clones in print, perhaps the best one is in space.
Recommended for a beach read or a long plane ride.