For the Emperor (Ciaphas Cain #1) by Sandy Mitchell – Book Review

I have so much fun with books in the Warhammer 40k setting. There are hundreds upon hundreds of them and they range from the utterly ridiculous to the downright tragic; from grimmer than grimdark to…uh, kids’ books narrated by David Tennant and Billie Piper *squints*. All sorts of brilliant writers have contributed to the colossal body of works that is the lore of this universe – my absolute favourite so far has been Dan Abnett – and through its sheer amount, there is something for everyone. Granted, this is licensed tie-in fiction and I don’t think I’ll be doing anyone a disservice when I say that a lot of it isn’t particularly good. I’m not pointing any fingers!

That said, like with Abnett’s Eisenhorn series, every once in a while I come across something exciting and really, really good! In this particular case, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the one, the only, Commissar Ciaphas Cain! Say hello, Commissar, don’t be shy, I know how you love the spotlight. Who is Commissar Cain? If you ask any high-ranking officer in the Imperial Army, he is a man of undeniable moral fibre, unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor and bravery in the face of unspeakable horror.  If you ask Cain, he’ll gladly corroborate all these…while reflecting in the deep recesses of his mind that he is in fact an opportunist who has spent nearly two centuries surviving through quick thinking, exemplary bluffing and no small amount of luck.  

For The Emperor is presented as the archived diary of this amusing Commissar, with footnotes and editorial comments penned by an Inquisitor who plays no small role in the untangling story of an Imperial frontier world that has erred away from the Emperor’s light. If a lot of what I said doesn’t make much sense to you, let me explain – in the fortieth millennium of the grim future, a very xenophobic humanity is barely surviving thanks to the will of a god-like entity entombed alive in a golden throne, holding together thousands of worlds and trillions of human lives through strength of will alone. This doesn’t play a factor, really, but you might as well know it if you’re still with me so far. This book doesn’t exactly get into any of this ‘bigger picture’ stuff but it’ll expect you to know certain backdrop information like this, or a few species of xenos (aliens) that aren’t explained in-depth. Certainly a minus for newcomers, I have to note, much as I adore this book.

Why do I like it so much? It’s humorous; hell, it’s laugh out loud funny, thanks to Cain (and, I suppose, Mitchell’s) acerbic wit, displayed time and again whenever the Commissar is forced to deal with life-threatening or otherwise harmful to himself situations. Or social functions. But in Cain’s case, they usually end up being one and the same, and the man has so much of that razor-sharp humour to spare for friends and enemies alike that it’s hardly a factor we need worry about.  Inquisitor Veil’s footnotes are alike tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at much of what Cain has to say. Oh, you want an example? Fine, you’ve twisted my hand, here you go!

Cain: “Bribery and threats are popular methods for getting what you want, but the Inquisition is better at both and tend to resent other people using them.”

Amberley: Entirely untrue. The Inquisition is most definitely above such petty emotions as resentment.

With the aid of his smelly adjutant Jurgen, Ciaphas Cain is damn near a force of nature, and a ridiculous caricature of your average Commissar to boot. I hear he’s also the antithesis of Dan Abnett’s famous Commissar Gaunt…No way of telling really, since I have yet to touch those novels but it sounds believable enough. I adore Cain. It was refreshing to read about a character who, despite all outward appearances, is a self-centred rogue looking out for himself. Or is he? That’s the catch, the big question – is Ciaphas Cain the self-serving ass he sees himself as, or is he more a hero than he could ever admit?

I’ll let you decide for yourself, dear reader. Ciaphas Cain is much like Schrodinger’s cat; instead of wondering whether he’s alive or dead, though, we wonder which interpretation of Cain is the one closer to reality; others, or his own. As for me, I am happy to give For the Emperor a score of 4/5 stars on Goodreads! I had an immensely good time with the audiobook version of this novel; it was released just last year, eighteen years after the paperback release. Stephen Perring’s narration adds so much to the character, gives him a remarkable voice that reminded me so much of actor Tony Curran (Defiance, Doctor Who) that I could’ve sworn when I first began listening that it was indeed Curran narrating it. What I want more than anything is for Perring to narrate the rest of the novels in the series – come on, Black Library, you can do it!

You’ll enjoy this if:

  • You like Warhammer 40k but are tired of the mixture of heroics and melodrama;
  • You really enjoy well-written tongue-in-cheek humour that somehow manages to deconstruct much of what’s iffy with the Warhammer 40k universe without taking away any of the fun of it;
  • You’re into excellent characters, there are plenty of those;
  • and more! Prob’ly.

Before I wrap this up, I want to give a shout-out to a really enjoyable cast of supporting characters – a likable, newly-promoted colonel, a bunch of convicted soldiers, a general with a high opinion of the Commissar, among others. I can’t wait to read more about them, about Cain’s regiment, the 597th Valhallan, as a whole, and about what comes next for the good Commissar. I just want Stephen Perring to narrate it all! Oh, and I don’t suppose I ever told you about the Inquisitor. Let’s just say…Amberley Vail is a ruthless badass, one of the very few who see through Cain’s carefully crafted mask. An Inquisitor (I really like Inquisitors), Vail is an efficient operative who drags Cain into danger for the first of many times to come!

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