Blackadder Goes Forth (For the Emperor)

by Arthur B

Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novels put the funny back in Warhams.
There's no getting around the fact that the grim darkness of the far future, as depicted in Warhammer 40000, is more than a little silly. Far from denying this, Games Workshop have shown themselves to be more than willing to embrace it over the years; the Jokaero have stubbornly remained in-canon from the dawn of the product line despite being tinkerer space orangutans, the very first Inquisitor to be named in the 40K canon was Inquisitor Obiwan Sherlock Clouseau, and in parallel with the comparatively straight-faced Gaunt's Ghosts series the Black Library publishes the similarly extensive but far funnier tales of Ciaphas Cain, as penned by Sandy Mitchell (Alex Stewart working under a pseudonym).

If Commissar Ibram Gaunt bears more than a passing resemblance to Sharpe at times, the inspirations for Commissar Cain are even more obvious: Mitchell readily admits that Cain is a cross between Blackadder (in the Blackadder Goes Forth mode) and Flashman (George Macdonald Fraser's incarnation of the character, of course), transplanted to the 41st Millennium. Commissar Cain, as far as the citizens of the Imperium are aware, is a square-jawed hero of the Imperial Guard, veteran of numerous clashes with the enemies of humanity, who after a long and eventful career retired to become a beloved instructor to a new generation of Commissariat cadets and to write his famed memoirs.

Only a select few - most of them in the Inquisition - know that after penning his public memoirs, Cain also worked on a very different autobiography - one which he must have known would never be allowed to be published, and which he presumably wrote for his own edification and, perhaps, for the benefit of the Inquisition. The memoirs could never be shown to the public for the simple reason that they tell the truth - that far from being a hero, Cain was a workshy and cowardly man who ended up doing heroic deeds through luck, desperation, fear of the consequences of doing otherwise or terror of the consequences to him if his legendary reputation were ever shown to be a facade. Throughout the memoirs Cain makes it very clear that he was acting out of self-interest and a desire to maximise his personal safety and comfort most of the time, and many of the deeds ascribed to him alone were only accomplished thanks to the help of his comrades.

Eventually - I think we are meant to assume after Cain's death - the dataslates containing these stories come into the hands of Inquisitor Amberley Vail of the Ordo Xenos, who edits them for circulation amongst her fellow Inquisitors - with footnotes and the occasional extract from other works added as necessary to correct inaccuracies, provide a less Cain-centred view of what's going on, add details that Cain glosses over, and of course to point out when Cain is just bullshitting. But Amberley herself is not an objective outside observer; as well as having an involvement in some of the events recounted, she also enjoyed a mutually beneficial involvement with Cain himself, having recruited him as an Inquisitorial agent and eventually getting into as serious a romantic relationship with him as her Inquisitorial duties and his tours of duty with the Guard would allow. Consequently, whilst she delights in showing Cain up when he gets hubristic, Amberley also points out that Cain is in many ways his own harshest critic, and points out instances where he demonstrates himself to be a bit more concerned for the troopers under his care than he likes to let on. As Flashman-like as the forgotten diary concept is, Amberley's interjections take the series into a more original sphere, particularly since she is speaking as someone who knew and appears to have loved Cain, her comments being based on first-hand knowledge of the man (and, sometimes first-hand experience of the situation he finds himself in).

The first Cain omnibus, Hero of the Imperium, see Cain encountering various cosmic horrors alongside the Valhallan 597th, the Imperial Guard regiment he spent a healthy chunk of his active career serving with, each of the three collected novels being preceded by a short story illuminating parts of Cain's earlier career - none of which are so essential to be worth upgrading to the omnibus if you have the original books. The first of these short stories, Fight or Flight, is a quick introduction to the character; freshly minted as a brand-new commissar, Cain has wrangled himself a placement with an artillery regiment, where he hopes to spend his military career a nice safe distance away from the front lines. Naturally, shit happens, Cain tries to flee, in doing so he does some heroic stuff basically by accident and the foundations of his heroic reputation are laid; after various misadventures and a transfer to a desk job at the Segmentum headquarters which turned out to be anything but cushy, Cain begins the first full novel having wrangled himself a posting to a new regiment - accompanied of course by Jurgen, his melta-toting Baldrick equivalent.

For the Emperor

Cain arrives at his new posting as commissar to the combined 296th and 301st Valhallan regiments of the Guard to discover, to his dismay, that the place is riddled with discipline problems arising from the fact that the regiment used to be two separate ones - one all-male, one all-female - that have been combined into a mixed regiment due to both suffering massive casualties against the tyranids. My eyes rolled when I read this premise because I thought it was going to be used to set up some sort of tiresome Minority Warrior bit where Cain tells people not to be sexist and they realised that they were being bad but weren't sexist. In fact, Mitchell provides a more nuanced take on the problem - the institutional problems the 296th and 301st face stem just as much from the hurt pride of both regiments, who both feel that their distinct identities have been watered down, as well as resentment from the 301st that their leader, Major Broklaw, ended up as second in command to the 296th's Colonel Kasteen, despite the fact that the less experienced Kasteen only outranked Broklaw thanks to a last-minute battlefield promotion. Of course sexism comes into the equation, it would be incredible if it didn't, but it's a consequence of these other resentments as much as a cause of resentment in itself.

Anyway, Cain realises that despite his usual policy of taking a laid-back approach to discipline - hardass commissars, in his experience, suffering friendly fire far more often than easygoing ones - he needs to step in, especially when during a particularly gruelling brawl between troopers of both regiments some of the crew of the troop ship they're travelling on get killed trying to break it up. Rebranding the regiment as the 597th Valhallan (because 296 plus 301 is 597, geddit?) and forcibly integrating the squads so that the 296th veterans have to get used to working with the 301st troopers and vice versa, Cain kicks off a skilled campaign of emotional manipulation, first getting the two halves of the regiment to come together in mutual distaste for him, then making him their hero by ensuring the court martial of those accused of killing the crewmen didn't result in the humiliating spectacle of Guard troops being executed by Naval officers. (He didn't get them declared innocent - that would mean he'd have to put up with them - but he did make sure they got formed into a penal squad to be dispatched on the first suicide mission that comes up.) By the time they make landfall, Cain has them eating out of his hand.

The specific place they make landfall at is the planet Gravalax, at the very edge of the Imperium's border with the Tau Empire. Whilst even the sniff of xenos presence on an Imperial world on most other worlds would result in swift and violent purges, on the frontier things are a bit different - particularly for worlds which, like Gravalax, are used by Imperially-sanctioned rogue traders (space merchants with a licence to do business with non-Imperials) to conduct business with the Tau. The Tau influence on Gravalax has reached the point where they have their own embassy there, and the populace is split into two camps - one of Imperial loyalists, and one supportive of the Tau presence. Diplomacy is the name of the game rather than open warfare - the Imperial supply lines aren't up for fighting a full-scale war to oust the Tau, and the top brass would rather save the resources for tackling the tyranid hive fleet that they fear might sweep through this region of space in a few decades. In principle, the 597th have an easy job: be visible in order to add weight to the Imperial diplomats' words.

In practice, it's not that simple. A conspiracy with tentacles reaching deep into Gravalax society is plotting to provoke a war between the Tau and the Imperium, and Inquisitor Amberley Vail is on the scene to burn it out at the source. When Amberley's team is decimated by a surprise attack, she needs some backup for a high-stakes mission deep below the capital city, where the conspirators make their lair. Who better to bring along, she thinks, than Commissar Cain, hero of the Imperium? And if there's a penal squad made up of dangerously violent troopers with a beef against Cain that they can bring along as backup, so much the better...

The first trilogy of Cain books are rather formulaic - which isn't a bad thing since it's a pretty entertaining formula - and For the Emperor (which must have the most unoriginal title of any 40K novelisation) is the one that set the pattern. As usual, Cain uses every trick up his sleeve to try and land himself a cushy assignment that sounds undeniably useful but in practice keeps him far away from danger; as always, this means he's right in the thick of it when things actually kick off. As usual, Cain's narration spends more time fussing about his own personal concerns than giving a decent overview of the situation, requiring Vail to step in with footnotes and useful extracts to round out the narrative. As he usually does with Cain novels revolving around the 597th, Mitchell takes the chance to troll other 40K authors by having some parts of the action not narrated by Cain filled in with extracts from the memoirs of General Sulla - mere Lt. Sulla at the time this novel takes place - whose atrocious prose style is reminiscent of the worst excesses of third-rate Black Library authors.

But the best aspect of the novel is how it convinces you to like Cain despite yourself. In a way, by choosing a commissar as his main character Mitchell has posed himself a very similar problem to the one faced by Dan Abnett in writing Gaunt's Ghosts; by default, Imperial Guard commissars are meant to be a cross between the Gestapo and the commissars of the World War II-era Red Army - jackbooted fascists who shoot troopers in the back if they show cowardice in the face of the enemy and in the head if they show evidence of psychic naughtiness, doctrinal slippage or other thoughtcrime. Abnett sidestepped the issue by making Gaunt a genuinely lovely chap and an inspirational leader, and as a consequence Gaunt doesn't really seem much like a commissar at all - especially since he simultaneously holds the rank of colonel, so he spends most of his time leading and not that much time actually being a commissar.

Mitchell also makes Cain a cuddlier than average commissar, but for entirely different reasons - rather than being a dedicated leader who prefers to set an inspirational example rather than controlling his regiment by fear, Cain simply has no intention of performing his job according to the letter of the law, because he doesn't want to get fragged by his own side. Likewise, whilst Cain does a lot of stuff which goes beyond the technical remit of commissars - usually involving him going on daring missions at the head of a bunch of troopers - he doesn't do this because he feels a calling to do it, but because he ends up stumbling into volunteering himself for them because if he didn't accept the job, that would damage the reputation he's carefully built up for himself, and if his reputation crumbled his life would be even more dangerous than it usually is. As such, whilst Abnett's Gaunt doesn't seem much like a commissar at all, Cain comes across as a nigh-archetypal commissar - an archetypally crap commissar, nonetheless, but he still fits the bill brilliantly. Cain is a well-rounded and believable character simply because he's crap and fucks up, just like the rest of us, both in his professional life and in his occasional social blunders. For instance, despite disapproving of sexism in the abstract - as the discipline situation at the start of the novel demonstrates - Cain still blunders into assuming that the Inquisitor on-planet is some dude rather than Amberley until she reveals her true identity to him, in a way which is completely believable.

Speaking of Amberley, she happens to be the other standout character in the book - and in the series as a whole. Unlike more cliched portrayals of Imperial Inquisitors, Amberley is neither a steely-eyed fanatic imposing absolute orthodoxy on everyone she encounters; nor is she a dangerous Radical tampering with stuff she shouldn't be tampering with to the detriment of everyone who encounters her. She's an objective, pragmatic sort who honestly couldn't give a toss about Gravalax's flirtations with the Tau so long as it doesn't expose the Imperium to an even direr threat (though she has no qualms about arranging for said threat to get diverted in the direction of Tau space towards the end of the novel). She's also got a sharp sense of humour, as some of her footnotes indicate; sure, she has people kidnapped, tortured, and killed for the security of the Imperium on a regular basis, but she's able to laugh about it.

And ultimately, laughing about it and then running for your life, as both Cain and Vail prove happy to do, is the only sane response to the ludicrously dangerous and dangerously ludicrous world of the 41st Millennium. Having played or run all four of the Warhammer 40000 roleplaying games, I can attest to the fact that player characters in them usually resemble Cain and Vail far more than they do Commissar Gaunt or Inquisitor Draco, simply because the world they exist in is so profoundly stupid it's hard not to play up the gallows humour. (The exception would be player characters in Deathwatch the Space Marine-themed RPG, if only because Space Marines lend themselves less to gallows humour and more to playing testosterone-drenched combat monsters prone to IC-unintentional OOC-intentional homoeroticism.) The pair of them are simply the most believable characters in the Black Library's corpus, and the chemistry between them is a joy to behold, not least because of the fun of Cain running up against one of the few people in the Imperium who are legally empowered to shoot him in the head when she feels like it. (Cain's more used to being the one who's allowed to shoot, though he more or less never does unless someone's actually been infested by Genestealer DNA or something horrifying like that.)

The supporting cast are equally entertaining, particularly the men and women of the 597th. Mitchell does such a good job of sketching out their personalities this time around that he barely needs to spend any time reintroducing them in subsequent novels - the reader knows that (for instance) the NCO charging madly into combat and sparking off a wave of destruction is probably Lt. Sulla, she of the horrendous prose and the unabashed hero-worship of Cain (rendered particularly amusing because Cain can't stand her). As far as his worldbuilding goes, the vision of the 41st Millennium Mitchell puts forth is more nuanced than that adopted by many Black Library authors - few, for example, would consider that the Imperium might act as pragmatically as it does on Gravalax in avoiding war with the Tau, but Mitchell makes a convincing case for why they might do so, and likewise Mitchell presents a vision of the Imperial Guard replete with bureaucracy, corruption, skiving and pleasure-seeking which is probably far more realistic than the staid and sober presentation offered by most of his fellow Black Library writers. In addition to this, in reintroducing overt comedy to Warhams Mitchell manages to be truer both to the original conception of the setting and to the way it is treated at gaming tables across the world than more sober Black Library authors manage to be.

In fact, because he bases his comedy mainly on straight-facedly presenting the absurdities of the setting and on interactions between believable personalities than on dumb puns and slapstick (as a less talented author given the brief to write a 40K parody might be tempted to do), Mitchell is able to slip in a perfectly respectable plot into the novel, which he plays absolutely straight. There's no question that Cain is, at least one some level, the hero of the Imperium he strenuously claims he isn't - the consequences for Gravalax if he and Vail fail to uncover the conspiracy are clearly going to be dire - but he's a hero on a far more believable basis than your average Space Marine because he does good things despite being just as selfish as the rest of us. For the Emperor is a fine debut, and proof positive that in the grim darkness of the far future those thirsting gods are at least laughing at something amusing.

Caves of Ice

Preceded by Echoes of the Tomb, the least interesting of the short stories in the collection (and that's saying something) which establishes nothing save that Cain once encountered some necrons and it was really scary so he's scared of them, Caves of Ice finds the 597th assigned to the world of Simia Orichalcae, an ice planet home to really not very much save a vast prometheum refinery and a lot of snow. Under invasion from a bunch of orks out to steal the prometheum for use in the time-honoured orkish practice of burning fucking everything they encounter, the refinery staff are obviously glad to have a bunch of Imperial Guard taking up position between the orks and them - a position Cain would dearly love not to be in.

When rumours surface of miners disappearing in the ice mines beneath the refinery crop up, Cain sees a golden opportunity to skive off whilst pretending to chase up an invaluable lead, only to discover that burrowing beetle-things that are supposed to only live on desert worlds have been digging around in the depths - and when he chases that up, he finds that there's an enormous tomb-complex of necron warriors ready to activate at a moment's notice down there too. He's all for dusting off and blasting the site from orbit - this, he points out, being the only way to be sure - but with Adeptus Mechanicus tech priests on-site and eager to get at the archaeotech goodies locked away in the tomb, the evacuation proves more eventful than he'd been hoping for.

The shortest novel in the collection by some way, Caves of Ice is probably also the weakest, and works better as the middle of the sandwich in the omnibus as it would as a novel read separately. The tunnel fighting that was a major feature of For the Emperor is a little too predominant, and Mitchell relies a bit too much on Lt. Sulla's deliberately bad prose as a gag, and the overall course of the plot is rather predictable. Mitchell attempts to use this novel as an attempt to tick some diversity boxes - there's a person of colour in the first squad Cain goes into the mines with to establish the point that the Valhallans aren't all Nordic sorts, but they play such a small part in the novel it feels like tokenism, and then there's the casual mention that troopers Grifen and Magot happen to be in a relationship to establish that the 41st Millennium isn't heteronormative. (This succeeds rather better, since Grifen and Magot play a larger role in the story and appear in later novels too.) Aside from this, Caves of Ice feels like kind of a wasted opportunity - you'll find it amusing if you enjoyed For the Emperor, but it doesn't really add anything to the series.

The Traitor's Hand

Preceded by The Beguiling, which narrates Cain's run-in with a Slaanesh cult based out of an aristocratic women's college, The Traitor's Hand find Cain and the 597th as part of a force sent to the defence of Adumbria, a planet under imminent threat of a full-scale Chaos invasion. Arriving ahead of the main Imperial fleet - which is soon cut off from the system by warp storms - the 597th and the other members of the vanguard make planetfall only to come under repeated attack from Chaos cabals on-world, revealing that the Ruinous Powers have conspired to plant their followers on the world in preparation for invasion for some time. Having made sure to befriend General Zyvan, the commander of the Imperial forces sent to protect the planet, Cain gets a cushy job staying in the planetary capital of Skitterfall investigating the Chaos cults whilst the 597th take up position by the major settlement on the planet's cold side - Adumbria being a tidally locked planet where one half always faces its sun and one half is in eternal darkness, with most of the populace living in a fertile belt of eternal twilight.

Cain's gambit to keep out of the way of the front-line fighting, as always, doesn't have the effect he was hoping for; it soon turns out that the Chaos cults hiding on-planet are much more of a threat than the invasion force, and indeed aren't even on the same side, being dedicated to Slaanesh whilst the off-world invaders serve Khorne. Cain is sure that there's a pattern to the cult activity that needs to be unravelled before they accomplish their occult ends - but his investigations end up being interrupted by the meddling of Commissar Tomas Beije (OK, Mitchell isn't above a pun or two), a goody-two-shoes rival of Cain from their Schola days who's attached to the Tallarn regiment posted on the hot side of the planet.

Though it isn't quite as refreshing as For the Emperor, I'd say The Traitor's Hand is a step or two above Caves of Ice if only because it shakes up the formula a bit. The inclusion of Beije as a foil for Cain is interesting but ultimately doesn't come to anything exciting, simply because Beije never manages to become a credible threat to Cain's interests. What is more successful is Cain's cultivation of his friendship with Zyvan - something which it makes absolute sense for Cain to do, since being pals with a General is obviously going to be helpful for his career, and which also helps Mitchell's purposes because it gives Cain an opportunity to run around doing stuff for the General rather than doing yet more tunnel fighting with the 597th. It's also the only novel in the collection which actually benefits from the presence of its accompanying short story, since the demon the Slaanesh cultists are trying to summon turns out to be the cult leader Cain encountered in the short story, who apparently ascended to demonhood after the events of that tale and if you hadn't read the story the conclusion to the novel wouldn't be as effective as it is. (That's not a spoiler, by the way; her interest in the situation on-planet is very clearly telegraphed). I was also glad to see Mitchell step up his trolling of Dan Abnett, with Cain overhearing someone yelling "Do you want to live forever?" in a battle (that being Gaunt's battlecry), which prompts Cain to assume the speaker's on drugs or something because nobody sober talks like that outside of "badly-written combat novels".

On balance, though, there isn't really much to choose between the three novels in this collection. If you enjoy For the Emperor, you'll probably have fun with the others, but if the first one bugs you the other two aren't going to change your mind about it. Mitchell would change up the formula a bit with the next three books by giving himself more leeway about the timeline - one novel in the next omnibus dates from the earlier period of Cain's career, the second comes from his tenure in the 597th, and the third is a story of his years of retirement teaching commissar cadets at the Schola. By the time I got to the end of this omnibus, I was decidedly in the mood for a change to the formula, so Mitchell timed that particular shake-up perfectly, but at the same time I don't regret owning Hero of the Imperium and would most likely recommend it over most other Warhammer 40000 bricks.

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Comments (go to latest) at 01:39 on 2011-10-10
Heh. The Ciaphas Cain books are always fun.

On the same style, I would go for the Space Wolf omnibus, if you can stand the Plot Armor. They are also fun, despite that Dan "I'm too cool for Space Marines" Abnett doesn't like them.
Arthur B at 03:09 on 2011-10-10
I was put off the Space Wolf stuff by the fact that the first novels of the series are by William King, and I thought that Gotrek and Felix were kind of forgettable. Is there anything that elevates the SW stuff above lazy emulation of better authors (a la G&T's mimicing of Fritz Leiber etc)? at 05:59 on 2011-10-10
Dunno about forgettable, I put them on the "so bad that is good" cathegory. at 08:21 on 2011-10-10
Ciaphas Cain was nearly first introduction to Warhammer 40,000, for which I'm quite glad. They're enjoyable novels, and they do a good job showing you around the universe and letting you know what the deal is with the various enemies and stuff. And quite entertaining, too.

It's kind of too bad that Mitchell doesn't seem to have too much else to his name in the Black Library. He did some Dark Heresy tie-ins, which I found to be basically really, really sub-par retreads of Abnett's Eisenhorn and Ravenor books with the characterization mostly stripped out. And I think that's very nearly it, except for (IIRC) a couple standalone Warhammer fantasy novels and perhaps some short stories.
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