BOOK REVIEW: Saviour of the Imperium, by Sandy Mitchell

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Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • The third Ciaphas Cain omnibus
  • Features the novels The Emperor’s Finest, The Last Ditch, The Greater Good, plus short stories
  • Focuses on the Astra Militarum
  • Published by Black Library in 2020
  • Military SF with a Grimdark sense of humour
  • 875 pages

Commissar Ciaphas Cain returns to action once again. His deeds are legendary, but can even the magnificent Cain stand against the multitude of the Imperium’s enemies? With orks, tyranids, and tau aplenty, there’s never been a worse time to be a coward . . .

Reviewing a lengthy series is a difficult proposition. If you’ve discussed the author’s writing style in the first review, then you probably don’t need to talk about it in the second and third ones. If the setting is the same for multiple stories, how do you praise even the bets worldbuilding without repeating yourself ad nauseum? What more can you say about a series in book seven that you hadn’t covered by book six? Because I review every science fiction book I read, and because I read a lot of series, this is a difficulty I’ve wrangled with on multiple occasions. If I read a series back to back, as I did with K.B. Wagers’ The Indranan War or the opening six books of Marko Kloos’ Frontlines saga, then I might bundle all the books into a single review. But this isn’t always possible. If there are months between books (or even years), then I’m not going to cling to the review until I’ve read the whole series. When I review single entries in a long-running series, I find I don’t always have much to add to the conversation. But I’ll always try and find a new angle, even if I do have to ramble on a bit at the start of the review.

Writers, I feel, have a similar issue. How do you write a long-running series without the stories growing repetitive. Change the narrative is the simple answer, but how much can you change before you’re better off starting a new series altogether? With this third omnibus of Ciaphas Cain’s (mis)adventures, the strain of that weight is starting to show. Individually, the stories all work fine. There’s the usual mix of gritty action and dry humour, a change of environment in each story (space hulk, Imperial colony, Forge World), and a variety of xenos to be cut apart by lasguns and chainswords. The return of the Adeptus Astartes shakes things up a little, while Cain and Vail remain reassuring crotchety presences.

Taken as part of a whole, however, and being the latter third of a long series, there’s a certain sense of formulaic storytelling kicking around in the background. Partly this comes from the stories themselves. We’ve already seen Cain facing these enemies, and while the new stories are good, they do at times feel like reruns of past glories. The Greater Good shakes things up nicely with a fragile truce between human and tau forces, but this comes at the tail end of a series full of slaughter. Having this series told outside of chronological order (at least the central narrative, the footnotes are in order), means that Mitchell can jump around to important moments in Cain’s career. It’s just a shame that these moments often feel familiar.

Then there is the episodic nature of the series. First of all, I love episodic storytelling, and wish there was more of it. But having each book be possible to be read alone does lead to repetition. Especially in the footnotes. Vail’s commentary is the best part of the series, simultaneously exposing the truth of the situation while also falling victim to Cain’s legacy. But nine books in, I don’t need another note explaining what a cogboy is. Nor do I need every extract from General Sulla’s memoirs to come with the same disclaimer. Each note is fine in isolation, but in he third of these massive omnibuses, it’s overkill. Though I admit, Warhammer 40,000 has built its reputation on overkill.

In hindsight, most of these issues stem from reading the books so close together. For those who waited years between instalments, I doubt the same problems existed. And in spite of my quibbles, the Ciaphas Cain series remains a lynchpin of Warhammer’s comedic stylings. Repetitive though it can be, it’s still worth a read.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Founding, by Dan Abnett
Yarrick, by David Annandale
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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