The Ciaphas Cain Books by Sandy Mitchell


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
Ciaphas Cain 1: For the Emperor

Commissar Ciaphas Cain has a formidable reputation: an outstanding soldier, an inspiring officer and a terror to the enemies of the God-Emperor of Mankind. However, it is completely unearned. Cain actually spends his missions desperately trying to stay out of trouble and trying to find the best place to hunker down and ride out any conflict. Instead, he finds that events conspire to place him on the front lines and in the most dangerous hotspots.

This time, Cain has been assigned to a regiment of Valhallan troopers which has been cobbled together out of two former single-sex units. With the soldiers of the formation mistrustful and resentful of one another, Cain must find a way of integrating the two sides before their new mission can even get underway. Their new assignment is Gravalax, a world on the border of the Tau Empire. Highly unusually for the Imperium, which prefers war and genocide over diplomacy and negotiation, Gravalax's exposed position on a salient into Tau territory means that it relies on the goodwill of its Tau neighbours to survive. When the Tau Ambassador is assassinated and war threatens to erupt, it falls to Cain, an Imperial Inquisitor and a penal detachment of condemned murderers to save the day.

We're back in Warhammer 40,000 territory with this novel, but this time around things are rather different to the fine novels of Dan Abnett. If the Gaunt's Ghosts series are a military SF take on Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, Ciaphas Cain is an SF take on George MacDonald Fraser's superb Flashman series of historical adventures, with a dash of Blackadder thrown in for good measure. As far as the rest of humanity is concerned, Ciaphas Cain is a brave, heroic warrior who brings terror to the enemies of mankind and instills valour in the men under his command. Cain himself thinks he is a cowardly, blustering braggart who is the first to dive for cover or beat a retreat when the firing starts, and this is how he comes across in these novels (his unofficial memoirs, with wry commentary from Inquisitor Amberley Veil and occasional extracts from other documents to add context). Cain sells himself short though: he is also cunning, impressively deceitful and has a talent for survival, not just for himself and his stalwart aide Jurgen (think of a cross between Baldrick and Gregor Clegane) but for whatever unit he is attached to.

As such, Cain isn't quite as cowardly and blustering as either Blackadder or Flashman and is a reasonably effective soldier. This is a good thing, as a simple pastiche of those characters in the WH40K universe would be briefly amusing but likely grating in the long run. By taking inspiration from those sources but allowing Cain to develop along his own path, Sandy Mitchell makes the character and the stories much more interesting.

The story cracks along at a fair old pace and characterisation of both Cain and his fellow troopers (not to mention Inquisitor Veil, whom we meet as both a character in the book and also as the memoir's editor) is nicely-done. For those coming to these books after Abnett's, there's also some pleasing references to the earlier books (Gaunt is briefly discussed, although not by name, at one point, as is the Sabbat Worlds Crusade) and, as a nice change of pace, we get to meet some other enemies of humanity other than just Chaos. In this book, the Tau, their Kroot mercenaries and the Tyranids (whom I have to mention, by tradition, preceded the Zerg by over a decade) are the main adversaries and provide some variety. However, familiarity with the WH40K universe and characters is not assumed, and For the Emperor! makes a viable starting point for those new to the setting.

The calling-card of these books is the humour, and Mitchell does a great job of subtly highlighting the inherent lunacy of the WH40K universe without ripping it to pieces and undermining the integrity of the setting. Instead, the satirical and comical edge works very well, resulting in a fair few major laughs as the book unfolds. Certainly the book's conclusion leaves you wanting to read more about Cain and Jurgen and their continuing misadventures.

For the Emperor! (****) is an enjoyable, fast-paced adventure story with a great line in humour. It is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium omnibus in both the UK and USA.
I really enjoyed this omnibus. The next one's due out soon i believe.
I like the "cross between Baldrick and Gregor Clegane" comment.:D Priceless!
Ciaphas Cain 2: Caves of Ice

Commissar Ciaphas Cain continues to relate his honest, self-deprecating memoirs to an appreciative audience (albeit only of a few high-ranking Inquisitors who have the necessary security clearance to read it). In this episode, he relates the deployment of the Valhallan 597th to the frigid (and nonsensically-named) iceworld of Simia Orichalcae, which is an important source of promethium to the Imperium. An ork raiding force has arrived on the planet and the Imperial Guard must mount a defence of the primary mining installation. But, in the caves underneath the complex, another threat is stirring...

Caves of Ice is the second Ciaphas Cain novel (of seven so far published) and is, once again, a comedic book in the vein of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels (with an added pinch of Blackadder), though Mitchell adds enough flourishes to avoid being derivative. In this book Cain's troops must defend a vital installation from enemy attack. Trying to find somewhere safe to ride out the battle, Cain volunteers to accompany a scouting party into the caves under the installation to ensure there isn't a way behind their lines, only to encounter some pretty horrific events and end up, once again, in the thick of the action.

It's fair to say that Caves of Ice isn't quite as successful as the first novel. The most limited, isolated location means a much smaller cast of characters and a fair bit of wheel-spinning. Cain has to mount no less than three separate incursions into the caves, and by the end the reader is as sick as Cain is of the icy, claustraphobic surroundings. It's a tribute to Mitchell's writing skill that he manages to retain reader interest despite the repetitive nature of these missions, as he raises the ante each time.

Once again, we get excerpts from other books (most notably from Lt. Sulla's ludicrously hyperbolic memoirs, but also a hilarious children's primer called Our Friend Promethium, plus the droll minutes of the tedious meetings the 597th's command staff take part in) that efficiently flesh out important bits of action where Cain is not present, whilst copious footnotes by Cain's erstwhile ally Inquisitor Veil establish the context of Cain's actions. But the focus is obviously closely on Cain and his fragrant aide Jurgen as they battle the enemies of the Imperium.

As usual, Mitchell's writing flows well and mixes effective moments of action and horror with characterisation (Logash is particularly well-handled, with the reader's irritation with his single-minded obsession with alien tech rising in step with Cain's) and his usual humour. Here he brings in some references to other books and series, with Aliens, Father Ted and possibly Babylon 5 all getting nods, and spotting these minor tips of the hat is fun.

Caves of Ice (***½) continues the story of Ciaphas Cain pretty well, although Mitchell arguably doesn't make the most of the isolated setting and the limited scope of the novel leads to some repetition. The book is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium omnibus in the UK and USA.
Ciaphas Cain 3: The Traitor's Hand

When a Chaos fleet breaks through Imperial lines and heads for Adumbria, the Valhallan 597th (and its increasingly famous commissar, Ciaphas Cain) and several other regiments are rapidly mobilised to intercept them. On Adumbria - a world tidally locked to its star and characterised by burning deserts and freezing icy conditions - Cain and his troops are spread thin, so they must bolster the morale of the native Planetary Defence Force. Cain, as usual, decides to find a nice rear-echelon position where he can avoid most of the combat. Also as usual, his luck doesn't quite work out as he finds himself battling Chaos Marines, unearthing secretive cults and pitting his wits against a rival commissar out to ruin him.

This third Ciaphas Cain novel sees the titular semi-hero once again thrust unwillingly into danger and adventure, and his every attempt to avoid it goes hideously wrong, once again leaving him festooned with medals and plaudits (despite the number of times that it his extremely smelly aide, Jurgen, who actually saves the day). The Traitor's Hand is a step-up from the claustrophobic, repetitive Caves of Ice by having Cain play a larger role in the defence of an entire planet from a Chaos army, with him moving from defending the capital to consulting the army's commanding officers to fighting in the field with his troops to storming enemy bases. It is with this book that the Flashman-in-space label starts to look even less appropriate, with Cain's reluctance to rush into the most dangerous places becoming less convincing (the occasional footnote interjection by Inquisitor Veil seems to agree with this) given the number of extremely hazardous scrapes he gets into here.

The book is well-paced, with a good mixture of humour (including the best bomb-defusing scene I've ever seen), action and character-building elements (the introduction of a nemesis for Cain within the commissariat is a nice touch). It's a busier and more impressive novel than its immediate predecessor, although it also arguably loses a little of the cynicism and cowardice that Cain is constantly trying to project as his heroics in this book become pretty bonkers (including spawning a cult that comes to worship Cain as a prophet and the Divine Will of the Emperor made flesh!).

The Traitor's Hand (****) is available now in the Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium omnibus in the UK and USA.
I picked up the second omnibus today. Ciaphas Cain: Defender of teh Imperium.
Ciaphas Cain 4: Death or Glory

Commissar Ciaphas Cain's adventures continue! This time we return to the beginning of his career, when he is still assigned to the 12th Valhallan Field Artillery. With the last few cushy years of the assignment on Keffia coming to an end, Cain and his unit are reassigned to Perlia, a world which has been deadlocked between the Imperium and a huge Ork invasion force for some months. Cain and his forces are part of a reinforcing army, but the Orks, aware that they are on their way, have laid a trap in the Warp. With Cain's ship heavily damaged, he and his constant companion Jurgen bail out in an escape pod and crash-land thousands of miles behind enemy lines, with hundreds of thousands of Orks lying between them and salvation. Cain, reluctantly, has to find his way through the Ork lines back to safety, only to find himself saddled with a band of gung-ho rebels and a train of civilian refugees...

Death or Glory is the fourth Ciaphas Cain novel and author Sandy Mitchell decides to shake things up a little by rewinding to his early days when he wasn't as well-known with such a formidable reputation. On the one hand it's sad not to see the familiar faces of the Valhallan 597th knocking around, but on the other Mitchell's decision to shake things up pays off handsomely, as Death or Glory is the best book in the sequence to date.

The structure is a sort-of demented black humour version of Erikson's Chain of Dogs, as a terrified Cain tries desperately to avoid confronting the enemy and hopes to be able to sneak past them. Instead he ends up escorting hundreds of civilians and isolated Planetary Defence Forces from behind enemy lines through several major battles towards safety. Along the way he meets a bunch of colourful characters and forges his later reputation, as Cain's actions inspire the demoralised defenders elsewhere to great deeds. As usual Cain is self-deprecating and makes claims of cowardice, but Mitchell seems to finally get a handle on the dissonance between Cain's self-professed cowardice and lack of acumen with the self-evident skills the character displays, by citing Cain's arrogance and his love of having an amazing reputation which he cannot risk being besmirched, possibly even at the cost of his own life. This realisation allows Cain to shake off the Flashman-in-space tag and begin developing more satisfyingly as a character in his own right.

Death or Glory is also the funniest book in the series so far. We learn that after Cain is reported KIA, the resulting bureaucratic controversy to get him undeclared dead takes so long to sort out that eventually a standing order is given that Cain is never to be reported KIA until he's been missing for several years (this order is not rescinded even when Cain apparently does die of extreme old age, meaning he's still on the active duty roster years after being buried with full military honours in front of the Imperium's most senior military personnel). Elsewhere we learn that a scholarly work on the Orks has the frankly brilliant title Waaagh! and Peace ("Waaagh!" being the traditional Ork battlecry in the WH40K universe), whilst the Orks have an apparently religious belief that any vehicle painted red or given red strips will go faster than anything else (solidifying the characterisation of the Orks as demented Essex lads and Cockney wide-boys). One of the members of Cain's convoy is a vet based on a character from the All Creatures Great and Small novels and TV series. And so on.

Weaknesses? Only a few niggles. Whilst it's great the book doesn't outstay it's welcome, at 250 pages (in the omnibus) it does feel a little short for its epic scope. A few more episodes of Cain's journey (which he admits he skips over) wouldn't have gone amiss. It also would have been interesting to see Cain reunited with his unit at the end given his CO's constant doubts over Cain's abilities, but alas we are denied this potentially amusing scene.

Death or Glory (****½) is ridiculously entertaining fun, written with verve and wit. Not high literature, but terrifically engaging and sure to leave a smile on your face. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Defender of the Imperium omnibus.
Ciaphas Cain #5: Duty Calls

A planet-wide insurrection has broken out on Periremunda, necessitating the deployment of the Imperial Guard to the planet to help crush it. The Valhallan 597th is part of the deployment, along with its increasingly legendary commissar, Ciaphas Cain, hero of the Imperium. As usual, Cain hopes for a quiet, simple assignment where he can sit out the trouble, and also as usual he finds himself instead at the cutting edge of danger. This time, a simple rebellion is revealed to mask a whole number of other threats which Cain and his ever-faithful aide Jurgen have to deal with. In this case, operations are complicated by Periremunda's unique geography, a world of burning, uninhabitable deserts with settled plateaus rising above them.

Duty Calls is the fifth Ciaphas Cain novel and, disappointingly, is a little bit of a let-down after the terrific Death or Glory. The good news is that we are reunited with the Valhallans 597th and also with Inquisitor Amberley Veil and her retinue of demented allies. The bad news is that Mitchell has seriously dialled down the humour and amusing references in this book. There are a few (mostly restricted to the footnotes and the extracts from General Sulla's ludicrously bombastic memoirs that provide a commentary on events where Cain is not present), but this is a more serious novel than its predecessors.

Not that this is a bad thing. Mitchell is great at describing the action which is the cornerstone of any Warhammer 40,000 novel, and is also solid at handling horror and drama as well as the traditional black humour of the books. So whilst Duty Calls won't have you laughing as much as its predecessor, it's still a solid and readable action-adventure tale, refreshingly short and to the point with a good line in characterisation. Whilst the book's main storyline is self-contained, some dangling storylines are picked up from Death or Glory and carried through to the next book in the series, Cain's Last Stand, resulting in the sense of bigger events unfolding outside of this one conflict.

Mitchell has created an interesting world in Periremunda and describes its scenery and geography with gusto. Elsewhere the book suffers from perhaps a tad too much reliance on the Ciaphas Cain formula - Cain is bluff and cowardly but emerges a hero, whilst Jurgen and his melta gun and psi-inhibiting abilities save the day more than once - as well as a sense of plot overload. As well as the rebellion, Mitchell also jams in genestealers, Chaos cults, a renegade Inquisitor and a meeting with a particularly fanatical branch of the Sisters of Battle. As a result some elements are under-developed. The planetary arbitrator goes from being a major character at the start to virtually vanishing altogether, whilst Cain's ideological clash between his pragmatism and the Sisters' idealism is never developed to its full potential.

Still, even slightly sub-par Cain remains highly entertaining and readable. Duty Calls (***½) is available now as part of the Defender of the Imperium omnibus in the UK and USA.
Ciaphas Cain #6: Cain's Last Stand

After eighty years on the front lines, Commissar Ciaphas Cain is enjoying a relatively quiet semi-retirement tutoring students on Perlia, the site of one of his greatest victories. The period of peace is rudely interrupted when the hordes of Chaos, led by Abaddon the Despoiler, launch a vast invasion of the Imperium through the Eye of Terror. Fortunately, Perlia is on the other side of the galaxy to the main battlefront. Unfortunately, a major Chaos battle fleet is on its way to invade the planet and seize an ancient relic that Cain has dealt with before...

Cain's Last Stand is the sixth (of seven so far) books in the Ciaphas Cain series and sees author Sandy Mitchell fast-forwarding to near the end of his protagonist's career, right up almost to the 'present day' of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Thanks to the SF setting, Cain and his constant companion Jurgen are still hale and going strong, though they're a bit more seasoned and experienced than earlier books focusing on their earlier days. Cain is somewhat less cowardly and more commanding here and has evolved into a fine tutor of commissariat students, trying to imbue them with a degree of common sense and intelligence in their dealings with demoralised troops. With Perlia in danger of attack and the planet's defenders mostly being inexperienced soldiers, it falls to Cain and his students to keep morale high in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers.

As with the previous books, this is an entertaining romp with black humour laced through it. The time setting also introduces an element of regretful nostalgia to proceedings: Cain remembering various people he's fought alongside and reflecting that many of them have died (from either natural causes or enemy action) during the preceding years.

Plotting-wise, Mitchell has taken a leaf out of Dan Abnett's book. Aware that these last three books would be assembled into an omnibus edition, he's laced ongoing storyline points through them which build to a huge finale. This works well, but the actual ending is actually a little disappointing in its lack of resolution and it's difficult to work out if it's a final one or setting up more adventures in future. Elsewhere the book is very busy, combining planetary politics, Cain's activities in the college and interactions with other tutors and his forging of his students into an effective force whilst also taking part in military action proving to be a lot of plot to pack into just 250-odd pages (in the omnibus edition). As a result the book moves very fast, but doesn't have time to build up the secondary characters as successfully as Mitchell normally manages.

Cain's Last Stand (****) brings this three-book arc to a successful conclusion and shines a different light on Ciaphas Cain to great effect. Not the series at its best, but relentlessly entertaining nonetheless. The novel is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Defender of the Imperium omnibus in the UK and USA.
Ciaphas Cain #7: The Emperor's Finest

Having narrowly escaped from an encounter with the feared necrons, Commissar Ciaphas Cain finds himself assigned as liaison to the Reclaimers Space Marine chapter, noted for their formidable weaponry, immense bravery and sometimes over-eager interest in technology. When rebel insurgents launch an uprising on Viridia against the local government, Cain fancies they are in for an easy campaign against an inferior foe. Of course, it's not long before genestealers abound, and Cain finds himself stuck with an overeager noble lady keen to ensnare him in political games, and a hellbound pursuit of a rogue hulk through deep space.

The misadventures of Ciaphas Cain are probably among the most purely entertaining in the Warhammer 40,000 canon. Whilst most books focus more on the "grim darkness" and "only war" bits of the setting, Sandy Mitchell's signature series instead tries to lighten things up, at least relatively. Commissar Cain believes himself to be blustering, cowardly and too eager to run at the first sign of trouble, but is constantly manoeuvred by fate into positions where he has no choice but to apparently-eagerly run to the front lines or into the most dangerous area possible, often surviving by the skin of his teeth and sometimes unexpectedly saving the day in such an outrageously public way. By this seventh novel in the series, things have gotten ludicrous enough that Cain is now getting full honour salutes from squads of Terminator Space Marines for his bravery (roughly akin to an angel saluting a particularly tenacious chimpanzee).

Of course, Cain's complaints about his cowardice and self-serving needs do seem to be contradicted by his actual proven ability to get tasks achieved and his impressive combat skills, and his constantly-present (via footnotes of varying degrees of bewilderment) editor-confessor, Inquisitor Amberly Vail, seems unsure about to what degree his "confession" is actual modesty, or even some psychological defence mechanism to rationalise a deeper-seated need to face death on a daily basis. This deep in the series it's a still a mystery (one I doubt will ever be solved), so it's probably best to move on and enjoy the ride.

The Emperor's Finest is, like most books in the series, fairly short but also packs a ton in. The book has three distinct sections, which less-disciplined authors might have tried to expand into a whole novel by themselves. The battle for Viridia is entertaining, with Cain acting as a liaison between the superhuman Space Marines and the ordinary human defenders, and getting into a Warhammer 40,000 meetcute (which means moderate flirting over the roaring exchange of bolter fire) with the governor's daughter, Mira. A slightly more interminable middle section follows as the Reclaimers try to track down the origin of the tyranid infestation, a space hulk cheerily named the Spawn of Damnation, whilst Cain tries to both win the respect of the Reclaimers and fend off Mira's attempts to lure him into political intrigue. The final section sees Cain, Jurgen (Cain's aide, think of the product of an unholy union of Baldrick and Gregor Clegane) and the Reclaimers let loose aboard the space hulk and finding things are far more complicated then they first imagined.

Mitchell delivers this with typical panache, with moments of humour and levity mixed in with above-competent action sequences and Vail's wry footnote interjections. However, the formula feels a tad off this time around. After a promising start, Mira never really develops into an interesting character and her storyline feels a bit rote. Cain's interactions with the Reclaimers and their crewmembers also hold a lot of promise but again are not fleshed out well: Cain's achievements in the book (from an outside POV) are highly impressive but I'm not sure he's done enough to earn the Reclaimers' overwhelming respect at the end. Cain is also at his best when in circumstances with lots of options for his natural self-serving tendencies to emerge and the reader to be left in doubt about his selfish/brave motivations. Here he spends a third of the book trapped on a space hulk with his back to the wall and no choice but to proceed to survive, which makes for a solidly tense adventure but doesn't service the character's best attributes.

Still, the book is short, to the point, has good action and some doses of light humour that the setting rather badly needs at time, so it's hard to complain too much. The Emperor's Finest (***½) delivers the required entertainment, but doesn't go above and beyond like the better books in the series. The novel is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus, along with its two succeeding novels and several short stories.
I wish it were possible for Cain and Gaunt to meet face to face . That would be one for the ages. :)
It might be possible. Inquisitor Heldane is in the Eisenhorn books and then crops up again in the Gaunt's Ghosts books set 500 years later, although he has a ton of life support equipment in the latter and is a powerful psyker, who live for longer than baseline humans anyway.

There's a much more modest 130 years between the later Gaunt's Ghosts books and the start of Cain's career. Of course, we don't know when the Sabbat Worlds Crusade ends, whether it's in victory or defeat and whether Gaunt survives (none of which Abnett will reveal before ending the series, which will likely take another 2-4 books at least). But it's certainly doable.
It might be possible. Inquisitor Heldane is in the Eisenhorn books and then crops up again in the Gaunt's Ghosts books set 500 years later, although he has a ton of life support equipment in the latter and is a powerful psyker, who live for longer than baseline humans anyway.

There's a much more modest 130 years between the later Gaunt's Ghosts books and the start of Cain's career. Of course, we don't know when the Sabbat Worlds Crusade ends, whether it's in victory or defeat and whether Gaunt survives (none of which Abnett will reveal before ending the series, which will likely take another 2-4 books at least). But it's certainly doable.

Or a warp could bing them together . I love both series and both characters . They're such opposites , them meeting would be priceless.:D

Warhammer 40K in vernal is some the best military science fiction ever written. The is a 40 K series with Henry Cavill on the horizon.:cool:
Ciaphas Cain #8: The Last Ditch

Commissar Ciaphas Cain and the Valhallan 597th are deployed to Nusquam Fundumentibus to deal with an incursion of orks. The campaign promises to be standard, although still dangerous, until Cain learns of a far greater threat lurking on the planet, one which sees both the humans and orks as enemies.

The redoubtable Ciaphas Cain - the science fantasy by-product of an unholy union between Flashman and BlackAdder - returns in his eighth novel. Once again, Cain is deployed to a trouble spot which seems a bit iffy, but practical to deal with. Also once again, complications ensure which gives Cain an enormous headache and results in a highly enjoyable adventure for the reader.

The previous Cain novel, The Emperor's Finest, was solid but did not represent the series at its best, with too much of Cain and Jurgen running around in isolated corridors where the opportunities for Cain - and Mitchell - to show off their skills with entertaining dialogue and character observations were limited. Fortunately, The Last Ditch is a return to form. Whilst we once again get a lot of action sequences, we also get a lot more character development and even politics, as Cain has to balance the needs of the 597th in fighting the ork incursion with the civil administration of the planet, who are trying to hold things together in the face of collapse. Of course, Cain (and the aromatic Jurgen) ends up at the hot end of the fighting despite desperately trying to find reasons to stay behind the lines.

The timeline means we get to spend more time with the characters of the 597th, including the batty Sulla, whose insane hero worship of Cain (further enhanced by excerpts from her later-published, badly-overwritten memoirs) remains extremely amusing. However, by this time Cain has been fighting (successfully) alongside the 597th for so long that Colonel Kasteen and Major Broklaw just go along with anything he suggests, which means relatively little tension in that quarter.

Tension is restored by the difficult relationship between the 597th, Cain and the planetary governor, who for once is (relatively) immune to Cain's charms and tries to continue politicking even in the face of an overwhelming alien threat. This is promising, but Mitchell punts off this storyline for Kasteen and Broklaw to deal with off-page, meaning we only get edited highlights from the subplot whilst Cain is off elsewhere.

Another potential source of rich conflict is Cain encountering a younger, more gung-ho Commissar fresh out of the academy, all too eager to start executing Imperial troops the nanosecond they slack off. Cain's more pragmatic, cooperative approaching clashing with the raw orthodoxy of the Commissariat would again be an interesting storyline, but again it's cut short by Commissar Forres relatively quickly coming around to Cain's way of thinking and becoming a useful ally.

Still, if Mitchell dodges these potentially engaging storylines, what we have is fun enough. A relatively epic narrative featuring a raging war across an entire planet told in a commendably concise number of pages, with enough plots twists, reversals, action sequences and wry humour to satisfy fans of the series, The Last Ditch (****) is entertaining. The novel is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus, along with the preceding and succeeding novels and several short stories.
Ciaphas Cain #9: The Greater Good

The Imperial planet of Quadravidia has come under attack by the Tau. Commissar Ciaphas Cain arrives to advise on the defence of the planet, after several previous encounters with the untrustworthy species. However, the Tau call an unexpected ceasefire in the face of a greater, mutual threat: an incoming Tyranid Hive Fleet. Cain's mission moves from combat to diplomacy as he has to broker a deal between the Tau and Imperium - the latter not known for its interstellar diplomacy - and then help defend the planet from the new alien menace.

We're back in the mayhem with the ninth novel of Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain series, in which the grim darkness of the far future is alleviated by the presence of the most self-preserving and undeserved glory-receiving specimen in the Imperium of Man.

The Greater Good puts Cain's reputation front and centre as he has to negotiate a peace deal between the Imperium - whose entire ideology is "shoot aliens in the face and never, ever talk to them," - and the Tau, a race dedicated to the somewhat nebulous concept of "the greater good." There's a degree of a comedy of manners here as the two species' highly incompatible ways of working clash with Cain trying to avoid war in the face of the greater Tyranid threat.

This stuff takes up a few chapters and then we're back to the battle front as bullets fly and large things explode spectacularly. Mitchell is accomplished at both the action and the black comedy sides of the setting (Cain sometimes feeling like the Only Sane Man in the entire barmy Warhammer 40,000 universe) and serves up both with aplomb here. Particularly entertaining are the deranged human scientists who think experimenting on live Tyranids is a good idea (spoiler: it isn't) and the Space Marines who worryingly agree with them.

There's a nice amount of variety to the story, as it moves from diplomacy to grim humour to action, although it does feel some ideas are left under-explored, such as the human inhabitants of the Tau Empire and how they regard the Imperium from a human, outsider perspective. There's also the usual advice that, although the omnibuses are most economical way to enjoy Cain's story, it's perhaps a good idea to read other things between the books, as Mitchell is perhaps less concerned than other authors in the setting with varying his prose style or characterisation between stories.

Still, this is an exciting action story with some laughs and some brief moments of thoughtful discussion. The Greater Good (****) is definitely one of the stronger entries to the series.

Also included in the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus is the long novella/short novel Old Soldiers Never Die (****), which is a fast-paced zombie story as Cain and his trusty Valhallan allies find themselves stuck on a planet beset by a particularly nasty Chaos curse. Ciaphas Cain vs. Zombies is just as good as it sounds on the tin, and the short format means the story doesn't outstay its welcome.

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