Ciaphas Cain: For The Emperor/Fight or Flight (Sandy Mitchell)
For the Emperor and the preceding short story, Fight or Flight, act as an excellent introduction to the character of Ciaphas Cain and the world he experiences. Told in an engaging first person memoir format, this book is bursting with wit and humor, though it isn't without its more somber side and serious character moments as well. An eclectic, enjoyable mix of comedy and drama, with plenty of action thrown in, For the Emperor is a highly entertaining read.
Fight or Flight begins the tale of Ciaphas Cain, starting with his first posting after school and the introduction to his enduring aide, Jurgen. The tale basically serves as a microcosm for For the Emperor (and probably future books) by having Cain do something somewhat cowardly in the face of a Tyranid attack, only to come out looking like a hero as he accidentally saves the day. The idea of accidental heroism is one that follows Cain throughout Emperor's Finest and it makes for quite a compelling character. Fight or Flight is basically the origin story for Ciaphas, and it works perfectly to establish his relationship with Jurgen, introduce important themes for the series, and showcase his ability to lead by being the perfect counterexample of everything his profession stands for.
The main story, For the Emperor, is set many years later and has Cain and Jurgen attached to a new outfit, the Valhallan 296th/301st, a combination of two depleted regiments, one an all female reserve group, the other an all male front lines unit. The tension between the two is palpable and threatens to get out of hand unless Cain steps in. He solves things in an unorthodox (for a Commissar) manner, instantly establishing himself as a strong leadership character.
After whipping the soldiers into shape, the Valhallans make their way to the planet of Gravalax, where the Tau are attempting to sway the local population over to their side. What ensues is a story that is one part political strategizing, one part action-adventure, and one part military sci fi. The Tau and Imperial Guardsmen engage in something of a Cold War for control of the city. A more direct concern for the Guard is an underlying conspiracy that seemingly introduces a third faction to the struggle, manipulating events from the outside. Much of Cain's time in this novel is spent following this trail, with the help of the soldiers under his command, Jurgen, and Amberley Vail. Along the way, Cain stumbles through near death situations, uses his tongue to avert trouble, and fights off rebel insurgents. The story is slightly predictable, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless. There is plenty of intrigue, and Cain shines in nearly every scene. Action is a bit sparse at the onset, with the author using the tension within the city to create a foreboding air before one shot is fired. After the first major twist, the book becomes more action oriented, eventually eliminating downtime sequences and crafting a sense of immediate danger for our heroes for the final few chapters.
Cain's companions and enemies are mostly bland, though there are a few exceptions. Amberley works wonderfully as a foil to Cain, as does Jurgen, and his interaction with both of these characters is the highlight where the supporting cast is concerned. The rapport between Jurgen and Cain is understated but effective, while Amberley and Ciaphas are an intriguing pair with quite a bit of potential. The rest of this cast is a more generic cast of soldiers, bureaucrats, and aliens, with no one in particular standing out. Our main antagonist are suitably creepy in the scenes in which they show up, but they mostly play a subdued presence, and are completely unmentioned until at least the final third of the book.
Ciaphas is one of the most fascinating characters I've ever encountered. Essentially a walking contradiction, Ciaphas is a surprisingly effective leader and does more for the troops under his command than the more brave Commissars that are legendary among the Guard for their brutality. Despite, and occasionally because of, his tendency to attempt to avoid personal risk, Ciaphas comes off as an exceptionally powerful character, surviving on luck, cunning, and innate leadership abilities that he seems remiss to acknowledge. He also isn't without a conscious, as we see the doubt and sorrow some of his command decisions cause him. For all his bluster, Cain seems to genuinely care about those around him, and as a result he comes across as an exceptionally human figure in a universe that often favors extreme, one dimension characters. Of course, any discussion of Cain's character wouldn't be complete without mentioning his clever, self depreciating, witty voice that marks the narrative style of the novel.
The author uses a unique structure to convey Cain's thoughts, and it works well for the most part. Written more than a hundred years after the events in question, Cain's memoirs of the event are perhaps unrealistically accurate given the immense passage of time, but overlooking this puzzling design decision, the narrative is incredibly engaging. Told in first person format, with brief interjections by archivist and companion Amberley Vail in the form of footnotes and historical documents, the prose makes excellent use of Cain's caustic wit, painting every situation as a potential death trap and poking fun at many of his acquaintances, while showing the thought processes behind his every action as a means to escape getting killed as opposed to some nobler goal. The humor, which takes many forms but most often manifests itself as dry sarcasm, is placed throughout the book as Cain attempts to meet even the most daunting of challenges with an off hand remark or two. It is an entertaining and endearing style unlike anything I've read before.
To help fill in needed exposition and explain other events that influence the course of Cain's story, the author makes use of several interludes, each of which sheds some light on the background of Gravalax or the fighting elsewhere in the city. Mainly using two distinct points of view, that of a Valhallan soldier and that of a crazed amateur historian, the passages manage to get their point across with little flair, and none of the book's trademark humor. These are some of the most bland passages in the book, and while they do serve a necessary purpose, the execution doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the book at all.
Repetition is another issue that crops up in the writing. There is some repetition concerning word choice, especially with "contrived" and "phlegmatic," the former shows up basically every time someone is preparing something, the latter is the go to word for describing Jurgen. Similarly, many of the chapters end with some ominous phrase from Cain along the lines of "If I had known what we were to encounter next, I wouldn't have done (this or that self serving thing)" which works fine once, but is repeated at least five times over the course of the book. Despite these flaws, most of the writing is great and the author does a great job in particular of describing the hectic rush of combat from the first person, along with the snappy dialogue and great use of humor.
For the Emperor is an offbeat and completely enjoyable novel. Featuring light humor and one of the most intriguing characters I've encountered, the book doesn't stray away from the futuristic warfare and gruesome carnage that is the hallmark of the Warhammer universe, but does manage to paint it in a significantly different light. The book and its short story, both contained in the Hero of the Imperium omnibus, are highly recommended despite the small handful of writing flaws and a supporting cast that ultimately could have been better.