Ciaphas Cain: Echoes of the Tomb/Caves of Ice (Sandy Mitchell)
The second book and short story tandem in the Ciaphas Cain universe, Echoes of the Tomb and Caves of Ice, is an entertaining and often darkly humorous tale concerning two of Cain's run ins with the deadly Necrons. Much like the first book, almost to the point of repetition, this is the story of Cain's self preserving and unintentionally heroic actions in the face of brutal danger, told in an epistolary style with limited commentary by archivist Amberley Vail. Despite being a dangerous step towards irrelevance for the series as a whole, Caves of Ice is a strong blend of humor and action told in a familiar style that manages to be entertaining and endearing in a way that no other Warhammer book can match.
The story is prefaced by a short work, Echoes of the Tomb. Echoes is a simplistic tale that touches on all the basic elements of a Ciaphas Cain story. We are treated to Cain's first run in with the Necrons here, an experience that sees him running for his life in the face of the unstoppable killing machines. It is told with the usual dry wit that has punctuated the series (no annotations or Jurgen though) and is a fun little adventure to set up his experiences in the novel it accompanies. Not a bad effort in terms of entertainment, but able to be skipped without losing too much about Cain himself or the back story behind upcoming events.
The story itself takes place on a remote mining world where an Ork invasion is currently underway. The 597th Valhallans have their work cut out for them, desperately attempting to hold back the Ork tide to protect the valuable promethium refinery used to create many tools that the Imperium of Man needs. Despite initial appearances, the story mostly concerns strange disappearances in the caves underneath the facility. Cain, in the typically self preserving but ultimately fortuitous manner that appears quite often in the book, volunteers to investigate the threat.
The rest of the book concerns Cain's struggles to find, then eliminate the brutal threat hiding in the caverns. Accompanying him is a band of totally dull soldiers, erstwhile aide Jurgen, and a random techpriest named Logash. Of course, most of the characters are simply cannon fodder, and the other familiar faces from the Valhallans play little role here except in brief excerpts that fill us in on the situation topside. Thankfully though, the book succeeds despite having much in the way of character interaction or intrigue. After the initial mystery of who is behind the disappearances is solved, it turns into a fairly straightforward, high stakes shootout between Cain and the Necrons. The identity of the assailants is little surprise (especially if you are reading this with the short story) but subtlety is not this novel's strong suit. What you are promised is what you get: a string of deadly situations in which Cain's penchant for avoiding one spot of trouble while stepping into another causes him to earn the universal respect of his troops and unwittingly promotes his name to that of a hero. This clever re-imagining of the setting works once again because the narrative structure, antagonists, and locales are varied enough to keep things from feeling too much like a re-hash.
This is an even simpler tale than the previous in the series, with none of the political intrigue, romantic tension, or civil unrest seen in the first novel. Instead, Cain's quirky persona is used to propagate a typical action/adventure novel in the WH40k universe while putting an often humorous and quite unique spin on it. Unlike the characters, the plot does more than enough to separate itself from the previous work while providing plenty of action and humor to earn its place as an entertaining Warhammer story in its own right.
One of my biggest complaints about Caves of Ice is the characterization. Not exactly the actual characters: they are true to form and enjoyable as ever, but instead the development of said characters. Without much in the way of new characters (an obsessive tech priest named Logash is the highlight, everyone else is imminently forgettable) the book relies on a strong presence by the returning cast of the Valhallan 597th. Unfortunately, these characters haven't grown much since the last adventure. Cain's erstwhile aide Jurgen is the most enjoyable, simply because the author seems to relish writing him and the character seems to have little room for growth anyways. The other cast members, including the random guardsmen newly introduced, either lack meaningful characters to begin with or aren't developed at all here. Most disappointing are the two commanders: Kasteen and Broklaw. The two characters who grew a bit in the last novel, learning more about the rigors of command from their own experiences and from Cain's leadership, are suddenly harden professionals with no more room for growth. Sulla, a character we get a few point of view sequences with in this book, acts as little more than exposition to fill in the parts of the narrative that Cain isn't involved in. The supporting cast is good for a few humorous comments from Cain, and Jurgen is an entertaining and enduring presence, but other than that it suffers from adding precious little to the main story.
Of course, this lack of development is even more frustrating when it comes to the protagonist, Cain himself. He behaves in exactly the same way that he did in the previous novel, and the author does a terrible job at putting a new spin on the character or his beliefs. What we are left with is a character brimming with potential doing the same exact things over and over again, packaged in a different setting. The only meaningful difference here is that Cain has no hints of a romantic relationship here, so that element of his persona is more subdued. Otherwise it is the same self preserving but ultimately well meaning, crafty and witty character that we saw in the last book. If you liked Cain in the last book, you will be perfectly happy with him in this one. I like the character and this isn't exactly an offensively bad characterization, but I was definitely hoping for more. The only characters I truly enjoyed were the Necrons, who don't actually get a point of view sequence or featured antagonist, but do work well as a mindless, near indestructible killing machine.
The writing in this story is another quality effort by author Sandy Mitchell. There is plenty to like here, captured in the now familiar first person epistolary format. The author does a great job handling involving and well planned small scale action sequences, readily showcasing both Cain's considerable ability and the fierce qualities of his opponents. The opposition is also built up nicely through the cryptic and shadowy way the infiltration of the Necron tombs is written. The oppressive and dangerous atmosphere of the long sealed chambers does wonders for building on the mythology behind the Necrons, and the actual creatures themselves are described with a sharp eye for the gruesome. The hallmark of the series, humorous dialogue and witty interjections by Cain, is represented well here with some great one liners and a generally strong sense of comedic timing.
Getting inside Cain's head in this format is a big plus as it is crucial to showcase the most vital element of the humor, but there are flaws. Cain's recollection of the events seems to occur many years down the line, after he has completed his career and retired from service. I don't like the lack of tension that this creates, and in some ways it tends to put the narrative into a detached state by constantly reminding us of both the outcome and the bigger picture. I'm also sick of the cheap foreshadowing device that this series has completely overused where Cain will make cryptic allusions to the ultra intense danger he is about ready to face, usually worded something like "if I had known x, I wouldn't have been so eager to do y." There has to be a better way to generate interest than by just using the same phrase/technique over and over again. Perhaps because her role in the story is basically nonexistent prior to the epilogue, Ms. Vail's commentary is limited and generally expository in this book. There are a few biting (and funny) comments about Cain or his opinions, but for the most part it is just basic clarification and background on various elements of the story. As a result, it is just kind of there, inoffensive but generally uninteresting.
Caves of Ice is an adequate follow up to the first book in the series, but while the first book was an utterly different and charming take on the Warhammer universe, this book is a bit too similar to the first in many ways, including a complete lack of character development and re-heating many of the same jokes for use in this story. If you can overlook the simplistic narrative, repetition, and bland supporting cast, Caves of Ice will entertain in nearly the same way that the first book did.