Wednesday, 16 February 2011

‘The Emperor’s Finest’ – Sandy Mitchell (Black Library)

I’ve mentioned it before but it’s worth mentioning again. If you’re after a hefty slice of military sci-fi (at a decent price) then you can’t go too far wrong with the Black Library ‘Warhammer 40K’ omnibus editions. Three books wrapped up in a big book and it only costs slightly more than one Peter Hamilton book; you can’t argue with that! These editions are a great way to get caught up with what’s happening in the Imperium of Mankind (mostly war but there is other stuff happening as well) but I find that their size can work against me considering that I do the bulk of my reading on the way to and from work. I long for the day when they introduce ‘reading carriages’ on the underground but I suspect that’s a long way from happening. Space issues on the train have meant that a whole load of the Black Library omnibuses haven’t made it off the reading pile and that’s the main reason why I’m horribly behind reading of the adventures of one Commissar Ciaphas Cain (there are other reasons that I’ll touch on later).

In the universe of the far future, Commisar Cain stands out as a shining example of a Hero of the Imperium; an officer always ready to lead from the front in the Imperiums constant struggle against the Xenos hordes. The truth is another matter entirely though... Commissar Cain is a self confessed coward whose main aim is to see out his military career as far from the front lines as possible; if he’s leading from the front then it’s only because he doesn’t want to be shot as a deserter by his own side! Cain’s attempts to dodge the fighting only serve to propel him into greater acts of heroism though and he has ended up with a reputation that may flatter his ego but constantly puts him in dangers way.

Duty calls once more and the hunt for the source of a planetary rebellion leads Cain, and the Space Marines of the Reclaimers Chapter, to a drifting space hulk swarming with Genestealers (think aliens but with bigger claws). Cain would much rather see this one out from the relative comfort of a neighbouring star cruiser but fate puts him in the depths of the space hulk... just as the Genestealers awake and proceed to tear his Marine escort to shreds. Cain and his aide Jurgen are on their own and must get to their landing craft before the Genestealers get to them. And then they stumble upon Ork stowaways... Will Cain make it out alive and, more importantly, will he find a way to come out of this debacle as a hero?

Due to the whole ‘omnibus thing’ I’m about five books behind on my Cain reading; I’ve read ‘For the Emperor’ but didn’t get further than that as I felt, at the time, that Cain is a character best read in bite sized chunks rather than gorged on all at once.

I wanted to get back into it though and thought I’d have a go at jumping in at the most recent book, just to see how well it stood on its own. I think you’ll get a lot more out of this book if you’ve read the others first but it stands very well on its own with a self contained plot and enough slight references to prior events that you come away with a good idea of who Cain is as a character and why he does all the things that he does.

As a character, Cain holds the plot together admirably although I have to say that I could see his constant conniving and intriguing starting to grind on me if I was to read one of his omnibus collections. It works well over the course of a single book but three books in quick succession? I’m not so sure...

As I said, Cain’s constant intriguing works to good affect over the course of ‘The Emperor’s Finest’. Not only does it give us a good insight into just how devious our Commissar is but it also shows us just how deadly the setting as a whole is if Cain’s whole attention is forever focussed on how best to avoid trouble. In the end, fate makes a mockery of Cain’s plans and Mitchell uses these cruel quirks to move the plot forward smoothly and take it to places where Cain definitely doesn’t want to be. Luckily for us, these places are just where the reader wants to be and Mitchell details the ensuing fire fights in all the right ways, giving the reader a candid look at how the outcome of these fights are more often than not down to plain luck.

The ‘editor’s notes’ (this story being part of a larger collection under the guardianship of the Inquisitor Amberley Vail) offer the reader a chance to look at Cain in a different light and it’s left up to us to decide whose version is closest to the truth. Can a coward be a hero by simply doing heroic things or is Cain just a coward plain and simple? Or Cain too self effacing for his own good and is more of a hero than anyone would realise? To be honest, I think everyone who reads these books is going to have a different opinion as far as that goes and I’m undecided myself. It’s just fun in the meantime to have the plot take you backwards and forwards, casting Cain in a new light in each turn.

The one thing that didn’t sit well with me was the humour on display throughout the book. Don’t get me wrong, the ‘Casablanca’ reference made me laugh as did the tech-priest/garage mechanic comparison. It’s probably down to my reading some of the darker 40K novels first but things just felt a little too light hearted for what is essentially a horribly grim and dark setting. I had real trouble reconciling the two elements and this made the read a lot less smooth than it perhaps could have been...

I think that this issue will iron itself out as I read more of the books though, ‘The Emperor’s Finest’ has got me in the mood to do just that with an entertaining mixture of guns, plans gone hopelessly awry and a Guardsman aide with a personal hygiene problem. Cain’s tales aren’t my thing just yet but I reckon they soon could be...

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Anonymous said...

I very much agree with your conculsions on this series - particularly the humour which is at odds with the setting and the tone of many of the other books by BL set in the 40K-verse.

However, i totally agree that as you read more in this series, you grow to enjoy this side of the 40K experience - its 40K, but not.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say the humour is at odds with the 40k setting given that it's always been part of the setting.

Admittedly it has been less of a focus these days compared to the madness of Rogue Trader (I mean seriously there was an Inquisitor Obiwan Sherlock Clousseau in those days) but it's still there just not as blatant.

Besides one of the best things about the Cain books has always been the references to pop culture that manage to sneak their way in- everything from Dad's Army to Winne the Pooh.

suneokun said...

I found the comedy in Ciaphas Cain novels deeply refreshing. Only Dan Abnett and Demski-Bowden (and Graham Neill occasionally) actually manage to pull the '40k serious' face off very well, with the majority of the other books being funny for all the wrong reasons.

The one thing Cain does wonderfully is poke some healthy holes in the 'fanaticism' of 40k. When Chaos Space Marine players (and this is a distinct minority) can shout 'Blood for the Blod God' in the local store during a tabletop game ... Ciaphas Cain's reply of "Hufflepuff for the Cup!" had me rolling.

Ciaphas Cain books are twice as funny as a satire on the 'gamer' universe itself.