BOOK REVIEW: Defender of the Imperium, by Sandy Mitchell

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Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • The second Ciaphas Cain omnibus
  • Features the novels Death or Glory, Duty Calls, Cain’s Last Stand, plus short stories
  • Focuses on the Astra Militarum
  • Published by Black Library in 2018
  • Military SF with a Grimdark sense of humour
  • 764 pages

Ciaphas Cain is a name known throughout the Imperium. He is a commissar. A warrior. A hero. But behind the legend lies a man. Here in his own words, is the continued story of self-professed coward Ciaphas Cain . . .

The first Ciaphas Cain omnibus, Hero of the Imperium, marked the end of my first attempt to get into Warhammer 40,000. Five and a bit years later, I’ve returned to Sandy Mitchell’s corner of the grim dark future to read the second collection of Cain’s (mis)adventures. And I have to say, having been immersed in Black Library’s science fiction for a year and a half now, I am much more appreciative of the humour contained herein. All those references that sailed over my head five years ago now land squarely. Equally, coming off a run of Black Library books that haven’t been afraid to let a little humour slip through the cracks, the more jovial nature of the Ciaphas Cain series no longer feels out of place.

The central conceit behind the Ciaphas Cain novels is as brilliant as it is simple. Ciaphas Cain is man widely regarded to be a paragon of Imperial values. Fanatical in his bravery. Loyal to the end. The perfect commissar. Then Cain writes his memoirs, in which he reveals himself to be utterly self-serving, and a coward who has simply lucked into his many victories. That’s good enough on its own, but then there is more. I am a massive fan of footnotes, which really don’t get used enough in fiction. With Ciaphas Cain, there’s a footnote every other page or so. Written by an Inquisitor who knew Cain, they ostensibly provide historical context, as do the extracts from other in-universe texts. But beneath that there is another layer. The inquisitor in question, while admitting that Cain is not quite the hero he’s cracked up to be, argues that neither is he the villain he paints himself to be. Each layer of the story works perfectly well on its own, but when you place them together, they create something pleasingly intricate. Simple to understand, but rewarding in the extreme if you dig a little deeper. My only complaint in this regard is that having both the main text and the footnotes written by characters to refer to the other, it does sometimes take a sentence or two to remember whose perspective you are reading.

Defender of the Imperium achieves something quite special, in that it’s one of the rare Black Library omnibuses that doesn’t feel long. It helps that the constituent books are fairly short and quickly paced, but there’s more to it than that. Each novel works largely as a standalone, with context and chronology provided by the footnotes. This is true of other series (Gaunt’s Ghosts springs to mind), but there is more variety in the Ciaphas Cain stories than you’ll find in others. Yes, they’re all ultimately war stories about a man who’d rather be on holiday, but sometimes he’s waging war against Orks on a remote world, others he is hunting Chaos cultists, or fighting to prevent tyrranids from overwhelming a planet. With a constantly shifting supporting cast and an ever-changing array of enemies, the Ciapahas Cain series still feels fresh six novels in. The handful of short stories surrounding the main body are just a little extra treat.

If you want your Warhammer 40,000 to come with equal senses of adventure and humour, then Ciaphas Cain is your man.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Yarrick: The Omnibus, by David Annandale
Brutal Kunnin, by Mike Brooks
Honourbound, by Rachel Harrison

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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