Ciaphas Cain: The Beguiling/The Traitor's Hand
The third novel in the Ciaphas Cain series and final to be collected in the first omnibus, The Traitor's Hand is yet another simplistic adventure featuring Cain and the members of the Valhallan 597th. Like the last book in the series, I was thoroughly unimpressed with this book due to the fact that it does very little to deviate or expand on the formula established in the first book. Throw in some extremely repetitive writing and characters that have been in the same mindset for three books now, and you have an adventure that may satisfy some fans of the first novel, but it is much too redundant for my tastes.
Once again, the book opens with a related short story, The Beguiling. Much like the short story from the previous novel, Echoes of the Tomb, the short story serves to elaborate on Cain's first encounter with a deadly enemy featured in the main novel, except this time it is the forces of Chaos instead of Necrons. There really isn't much to say about this story, it features Cain, Jurgen, and two redshirts on a mission to some random world. They find themselves in more trouble than they bargained for and ultimately barely survive. It is quite similar to the previous short story, but I find myself much more tolerant of this series in the bite sized short story format instead of the needlessly elongated styling of the actual novels.
As for the main story, it is exactly what you would expect from reading the first two books in this series. Set on an intriguing twilight world evocative (but not derivative) of Ryloth from the Star Wars universe, The Traitor's Hand finds Cain and his Valhallans working together with other Guard regiments to drive a Chaos infestation off of the planet. There is plenty of action as the Guardsmen face off against crazed cultists and hulking Chaos Marines, culminating in a fight with a demon of some sort, and the pacing is well handled, but something important is missing from the equation. One such missing piece might be the lack of an important secondary character. This book is all Cain, all the time, with little time devoted to fleshing out his supporting cast and leading to a few dull moments. Another could be the simplicity of the plot. Despite being more nuanced than the last book, it is still a very straightforward and predictable affair. Not terrible, just not exciting either.
There are plenty of positives though. Introducing a commissar from Cain's time at the academy was a great way to talk a bit about Cain's past, something that hasn't really been explored in this series, and this book is very similar to other 40k books where pacing and action is concerned. Expect a very fast paced read with grandiose action sequences every chapter or two. This book has more combat on a macro level than the previous one, showcasing quite a bit of the Guard's tactics and equipment in a way that the squad driven Caves of Ice couldn't. Unfortunately though, the story doesn't elevate itself from the average material, and it is once again too self contained for my tastes.
Probably the biggest problem for this series so far has been the lack of a true overarching narrative, and a surprisingly stagnant pool of characters. Sadly, The Traitor's Hand does little to deviate from this pattern. It simply swaps out the bad guys, delivers a slightly more complex plot, and gives us a very miniscule look into Cain's upbringing. I can't recommend this book on the basis of its story. We've seen this type of thing before, and while it makes for a fun read, it does separate itself from other Warhammer fare in the way that the comparatively light hearted tone does.
As for the characterization, there really isn't a lot to say here. If you enjoyed these characters in the previous books you will still like them here, but they are really starting to suffer for not growing at all over the course of three books. I can't help but feel the format, where Cain reflects on these events from something like a century after they first occurred, is proving to be a hindrance to actual character development. Looking back on events from so long ago doesn't do anything for the urgency of the story, but more important it makes character development much harder to spot. Cain has changed little since the first novel, though this is more the fault of the first book for painting him as being so supremely competent and intelligent so early in his life. The fact is that he has little room for growth is a major issue after only three books, and I'm hoping desperately to be wrong on this count because the character had so much potential initially.
The rest of the characters don't make much of an impression either. Jurgen is described in the usual way and does all the usual things, but we don't get any more of a feel for his personality than we have in the previous books. Sulla, one of the few characters to actually grow thus far, once again functions more in the background, but does gain a few more leadership qualities, and somehow she is the most dynamic character in the book. Broklaw and Kasteen, the leaders of the Valhallans, play a greater role in this book than they did in book two, and their return does help with variety among the cast, though by this point they have seemingly reached the pinnacle of development. To round out the characters on Cain's side, we have a large and difficult to keep track of list of random military higher ups, planetary administrators, and members of the local defense force. There isn't much to like about any of these characters and they are mostly just there for the plot.
Our antagonists aren't much better. Chaos has the potential to be among the top flight of the forces opposing the Imperium of Man in the Warhammer 40k universe, but here they are definitely below par. The emphasis isn't on how deadly they are, despite what the laughable attempts to create some manner of suspense might lead you to believe, but instead on their insanity and devotion to the Chaos gods. It is a more light hearted and humorous take on Chaos, though there is no shortage of gore throughout the book as a result of the Chaos cultists' devotion to pain, but one that doesn't make as much of an impression as the Necrons in book two or the various Chaos portrayals in other books. Thrown into the mix is a random commissar from Cain's past that finds his group of soldiers fighting with the Valhallans against Chaos. He is a laughable caricature of a villain and never presented as a threat. A sub plot featuring his attempts to incriminate Cain in the eyes of the Commissariat is taken seriously by exactly no one, and he was annoying in every one of his appearances. The character does serve as an excuse to look a bit at Cain's background, which is appreciated, but it is tough to imagine a less imposing villain in the Warhammer universe.
Though the book has its clever moments via the narration and annotations, this has to be one of the most repetitive series I've ever read. Expect the usual punch lines and quite a bit of repetition in language. I'm so sick of hearing about how Jurgen does things "phlegmatically," and the atrocious attempts at foreshadowing are back with a vengeance here, perhaps even more annoying in the past because the villains don't even amount to much. All of the flaws in this book are carried over from previous books, while I can't think of anything that has actually improved. I hate the format so much for this type of book, it really makes no sense to have him reflecting so far into the future. It does tremendous damage to the tension and we already know what happens to at least two characters (including Cain himself.) There doesn't seem to be any tangible benefit from having him do the recollections so long after the event, and a journal updated as the events play out seems like it would augment the book in all the right places while utilizing the same style.
After yet another mediocre, repetitive offering in this series, I have to wonder if I didn't rate the first book too high just because of its novelty value. Novelty value seems to be just about all the series has at this point, though it does manage a few grin worthy moments and the action isn't terrible. The bottom line is this: if you are fine with more of the exact same stuff as the previous two novels, then this book will be entertaining for you, but if you are expecting a bit more ambition and creativity, you will be sorely disappointed.