Throwback Thursday – For the Emperor by Sandy Mitchell

Warhammer 40,000 - For the Emperor Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 23 December 2003)

Series: Ciaphas Cain – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 4.75

Amazon

I’ve already put up one Throwback Thursday post today, for the cool Warhammer 40,000 novel, Kingsblade by Andy Clark, but the fun doesn’t end there as I am also going back to 2003 and reviewing the hilarious and deviously clever novel, For the Emperor by Sandy Mitchell, which is easily one of the funniest Warhammer books I have ever read.

Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to my recent review habits would probably have noticed that I am quickly and doggedly powering through a ton of the top books in the Warhammer 40,000 range of fiction.  Not only did I recently finish off the epic Eisenhorn trilogy by Dan Abnett (featuring Xenos, Malleus and Hereticus), but I have also checked out several cool standalone novels, including Grim Repast by Marc Collins, Deus Encarmine by James Swallow and Sepulturum by Nick Kyme.  All these books are exceedingly impressive examples of Warhammer 40,000 fiction that featured their own unique elements, such as galaxy spanning conspiracies, intense horror elements, or a futurist homage to classic, gritty cop stories.  However, the one thing that they all tended to lack was a substantial and notable sense of comedy.  That is where my next entry comes in as I have finally had a chance to explore the first book in the iconic Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell (a pseudonym for author Alex Stewart), For the Emperor, which had me laughing like crazy.

In the millennia when the forces of humanity fought to maintain the Imperium of Man, many heroes have risen from amongst the ranks of the Imperial Guard, gloriously leading mankind’s armies against the traitors, the heretics and the xenos.  Of these, few are spoken of with as much reverence and respect as the famed Commissar Ciaphas Cain, a living legend of duty, honour and courage.  Known throughout the Imperium for his daring exploits that have seen him survive the harshest of battlefields and continually lead his forces to victory, Commissar Cain is considered by many to be one of the greatest heroes of the age.

However, everything everyone knows about Cain is a lie.  In reality, he is a conniving coward who only seeks to avoid the horrors of the battlefield by any means necessary, in order to survive and make it to retirement.  Blessed with remarkable survival instincts, Cain has managed to stay alive against impossible odds many times, which has led many to believe he is a true hero capable of anything.  However, Cain’s ill-earned fame and reputation is a double-edged sword, as he is constantly chosen to journey to the worst battlefields in the Imperium, where his bad luck ensures he is in the thick of the fighting.

His latest mission sees him assigned to a newly formed Imperial Guard regiment suffering from horrific infighting and a lack of discipline.  Determined to install unity and respect amongst his new regiment, primarily so they don’t shoot him in the back, Cain is confident that he has found a relatively safe assignment.  However, his bad luck once again sees him in the thick of it, as his regiment is transferred to the backwater planet Gravalax, where a delicate situation is unfolding.  The inhabitants of Gravalax are attempting to defect to the alien Tau, who come with a message of peace and the Greater Good.  Not wishing to face the Tau and their superior technology, Cain works hard to avoid an upcoming war and ensure diplomacy will prevail.

However, after the Tau ambassador is assassinated and tensions are enflamed across the planet, Cain begins to suspect that there is more in play than he previously expected.  A shadowy conspiracy is hoping to start a war between the Tau and Imperium on Gravalax, and Cain is right in the middle of their plot.  To survive and avoid yet another war, Cain needs to work with a beautiful inquisitor to find out who is behind the attempted carnage before it is too late.  But his investigation reveals a far more dangerous enemy than expected, one that is determined to destroy all before it, starting with the terrified Cain.

Wow, oh wow, now that was a pretty damn fun book.  I had heard many times before how awesome and entertaining the Ciaphas Cain books were, and For the Emperor really did not disappoint.  Featuring a compelling story loaded with clever, dark humour, For the Emperor is a very easy book to fall in love with, and I ended up coming away really impressed with Sandy Mitchell’s amazing writing and comedic ability.

For the Emperor’s narrative itself is pretty interesting as it follows Cain through one of his most notable adventures.  Told in a chronicle perspective from Cain’s own memoirs (which may or may not be the most reliable source of information), you get to see the true Commissar Cain as he finds himself thrust into another adventure.  After a quick and very intriguing introduction, with notes from Cain’s associate, Inquisitor Amberly Vail, the story initially details Cain’s attempt to unify and control the Valhallan 296th-301st composite Imperial Guard regiment (eventually the Valhallan 597th).  These initial chapters showcase many aspects of the compelling protagonist, his deep cunning and determination to avoid damage, while also taking the time to introduce several of the major supporting characters.  The story changes after a few chapters as Cain and his new regiment arrive on Gravalax, where Cain must contend with the Tau, who are influencing parts of the local population.  Unlike most Warhammer 40,000 novels, the story doesn’t revolve around a war between the Imperial Guard and the Tau; indeed the focus on the plot is avoiding the conflict as two rival races attempt to find a diplomatic solution.  Unfortunately, some hidden force is attempting to start a war between the Tau and the humans, and Cain soon finds himself trying to maintain the peace, primarily for his own benefit.  After several intriguing and entertaining side missions, the plot eventually sees Cain and the new Inquisitor Vail lead a small, expendable force into the lair of their true enemy.  While I won’t go into detail about who they face, it results in a series of gruesome and deadly battles, where Cain’s survival skills are really put to the test.  Mitchell features a ton of action, intrigue, and odd-couple team-ups for this final major sequence, and you are really drawn into the intense storytelling, with even Cain’s sense of humour failing to cut through the brutal nature of the conflict.  Everything ends on a compelling, if slightly dark note, and you come away from the story pretty damn satisfied and ready for another intriguing adventure from this hilarious protagonist.

I really liked the fun way Mitchell wrote For the Emperor, as everything is set out to enhance the inherent comedy of the book.  While there is a ton of impressive action, adventure and intrigue, at their core all the Ciaphas Cain books are very light-hearted and add a more humorous spin to the grim Warhammer universe.  Indeed, I was getting some major Blackadder vibes from For the Emperor, as much of the plot sees the supposedly noble protagonist attempting to weasel his way out of actually getting into a fight.  Pretty much every interaction or thought in this book had me chuckling in some way, and I appreciated some of the clever jokes or references that Mitchell scattered throughout.  I also deeply enjoyed the cool chronicle format of the story, as Cain’s antics are made even funnier when you see it from his eyes.  At the same time, Mitchell includes a ton of extra notes and excerpts from other in-universe texts that not only provide intriguing context, but also add to the humour, especially as the intentionally over-the-top opinions and bad writing highlights just how crazy other members of the Warhammer 40,000 universe are.  There are also a series of notes, footnotes and quotes from supporting character Inquisitor Vail sprinkled throughout the plot to provide some additional insights, often in a humorous way.  I always deeply enjoy the use of a good footnote in fiction, especially due to my love of Terry Pratchett’s novels, and I felt that Mitchell utilised them perfectly throughout For the Emperor.  Not only do they provide additional information, but Vail’s footnotes often directly contradict Cain’s opinions and descriptions of events, and ensure a much more complex and complete overall story.

While the focus is often on the humour, Mitchell also does write a pretty compelling military thriller as the main story, which ties well into the wider Warhammer universe.  The focus on the intense conspiracy and the outbreaks of rebellion and war fit into the more humorous feel of the book extremely well, and you get quite an impressive story as a result.  There are also some rather dark moments scattered throughout the novel as well, and they provide a rather interesting contrast to the more comedic elements.  Having the character deal with some heavy moments, like being forced to kill an innocent man, provides some great balance to the story, and despite the lighter tone, you are always reminded just how grim the overlying universe truly is.

I deeply enjoyed Mitchell’s unique take on the Warhammer universe that was featured in For the Emperor, especially thanks to who is telling the story.  Most of the Warhammer 40,000 books you experience either follow a bold warrior or a common soldier, many of whom see the universe through lens of duty or ignorance.  However, the Ciaphas Cain books provide a much more down-to-earth view as the cynical Cain sees events as they truly are and he knows deep down just how deadly the universe and his own comrades are.  I really liked this alternate view of the franchise from a protagonist and it, and the inherent humour of the story, help to make this book really stand out from some other novels.  At the same time, Mitchell adds in some compelling and fascinating insights to the Tau, and other factions to the story, which really help to expand out the universe and ensure that there is plenty there for all Warhammer readers.  The examination of a more diplomatic route from the usually xenophobic Imperium of Man was also pretty damn fascinating, and it really helps to showcase how pragmatic some of Mitchell’s characters are.  This lighter tone, as well as the fun references to some other classic Warhammer 40,000 novels, ensures that all fans of the franchise are going to have an amazing time with this book, and I personally found it to be a welcome change of pace between a few heavier Warhammer novels I have recently read.  For the Emperor would also serve as a pretty good entry point into the Warhammer 40,000 universe, especially as you get a good idea of how crazy everything is, while also getting to have a laugh at it.  As such, this is an extremely good Warhammer novel, and I now fully understand why the Ciaphas Cain books are so beloved by the fandom.

I can’t mention For the Emperor without discussing the awesome and extremely entertaining collection of characters that Mitchell successfully introduces here.  For the Emperor features a substantial and compelling cast, each of whom brings something special to the story and helps to either enhance the humour or the more serious aspects of the book in their own special way.

The most important of these characters is of course Commissar Ciaphas Cain, through whose memoirs we see most of the plot unfold.  A legendary hero of the Imperium, Cain is one of the more unique figures in Warhammer 40,000 fiction, mainly because he doesn’t deserve his inflated reputation.  While he acts the great hero and everyone is in awe of his reputation, in reality he is a craven figure who is actively trying to avoid the universe’s various wars and stay alive.  Thanks to his narration throughout the book, you see him constantly manipulating the situation to his advantage.  Literally every single action he takes is done to benefit him and him alone, with an appropriate explanation or excuse to keep people from getting suspicious.  Even his more heroic actions in the book (stopping a riot, defending the Tau ambassadors, visiting the enemy stronghold) are only done because they serve him in some way or when he can’t get out of doing it without dying or losing his ill-gained fame.  I absolutely loved this unique character feature, as not only is it hilarious to see how he manages to weasel out or manipulate situations but it ensures that he is the complete opposite of the usual gruff and ultra-serious Commissar characters that are such a big part of franchise (Gaunt and Yarrick, for example).

While it would be easy to dislike such a selfish character, you really grow to enjoy Cain and his hilarious and cynical viewpoint of the universe, which is the source of much of the book’s comedy.  It also helps that nearly every one of his actions backfires on him in some way, as his attempts to stay out of the fighting usually see him put into an even worse situation.  His intriguing narration through his journals (which have been seized and classified for political reasons), adds to the comedic and emotional impact of the story, especially as you get to see him weigh his actions with the benefit of hindsight (although he is usually unrepentant).  Of course, Cain is also the textbook definition of an unreliable narrator, and you have to wonder at the truth of his words sometimes.  I did like how Mitchell tried to show that despite his desire to avoid combat, Cain is actually a pretty capable warrior and commander, and that he wouldn’t be as effective a leader if he weren’t trying to keep up his lies.  There are also some flashes of humanity and deeper emotions scattered throughout the book, and you can see that there is a good person in there somewhere, even if it is buried far beneath his instincts for self-preservation.  Honestly, Cain might be my most favourite Warhammer character since Kal Jerico, and I had such a fun time seeing his antics in For the Emperor.

Aside from Cain, I really need to highlight Inquisitor Amberly Vail, who finds herself investigating the same conspiracy Cain gets wrapped up in.  Vail is a very fun character in this book as she not only presents the fictional version of For the Emperor to the reader, but she has a big role in the actual plot.  Vail serves as Cain’s love interest, but she also is the only person in the book who sees right through Cain and knows what he truly is.  Watching her manipulate the seasoned conman is quite cathartic, and the two make an effective and interesting team throughout the book.  However, I felt that Vail’s best contribution to the novel comes in the form of her notes and footnotes throughout the account, especially as they constantly call out Cain for his actions and keep his narration mostly honest by filling in some crucial gaps.  It as also very fun to see the various different versions of Vail that appear throughout the book, as you see both how she presents herself to the reader, and the slightly altered version of her that Cain sees.  This really makes her stand out as a central character in this series and her funny notes and corrections deeply enhanced the already entertaining plot.

Another major character I need to mention is Cain’s aide-de-camp, Jurgen, the Baldrick to Cain’s Blackadder.  A stooped, smelly and scruffy being, Mitchell has made Jurgen as Baldrick-like as possible (including a scene in which he comes up with a cunning plan), and I loved every damn second of it.  Firmly believing that Cain truly is the hero he claims to be, Jurgen faithfully serves Cain, and it is a lot of fun to see the two play off each other, especially as Jurgen is honestly the most honest and likeable character in the entire book.  The rest of the cast, which include schemers, professional soldiers, and various Tau, also have their moments, and I really liked how they were portrayed in the book.  However, they all share one particularly defining feature: they all believe Cain is a hero and are led around by his manipulations.  Watching these generally smart people fall for Cain’s lies is a great part of the book’s plot, and I had so much fun seeing them act the fool in this one specific way.  Overall, though, For the Emperor has some outstanding characters to it, and it will be fun to see how they are utilised in the other Ciaphas Cain books.

Like most Warhammer novels I have the pleasure of enjoying, I chose to listen to For the Emperor’s audiobook format, which I maintain is one of the best ways to enjoy Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  All the best narrative and stylistic elements of For the Emperor comes through at an even higher quality when you listen to them, and you really find yourself getting drawn into the complex story while also laughing at the fun characters.  I felt that the production value behind For the Emperor was particularly impressive, as the audiobook features three separate narrators in experienced voice actors Stephen Perring, Penelope Rawlins and Emma Gregory.  Perring, who I enjoyed last year in the audiobook for Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford, serves as the primary narrator for most of the book as he voices all the characters and action in the chapters of For the Emperor told from Cain’s perspective.  Perring is an extremely awesome narrator and the range of epic voices he creates for the main cast are very impressive and really capture their personalities and unique physical characteristics.  I loved the cynical, tired and falsely noble voice that Perring utilises for the main character of Cain, and you have to mention the slimy and fun voicework for the character of Jurgen as it makes him sound even more like Baldrick.  Perring also narrates a couple of the in-text extracts (those written by a male author), and he ensures that they sound even more pompous and filled with misinformation, than you would get from a simple reading.

While Perring is the main narrator, the other two featured actors have amazing performances in For the Emperor’s audiobook which really add to the overall production.  Penelope Rawlins voices the character of Inquisitor Vail during the parts of the novel she writes, mainly her notes on the events going on and the various footnotes featured throughout the plot.  Rawlins’s take on Vail is slightly different to that of Perring, and you get a stronger sense of her intelligence and power through Rawlins voice, which I felt helps to emphasise that Cain’s perspective might not be the most reliable.  The change in narrator also ensures that the various notes from Vail really pop out in comparison to the main story so you always know when Vail is speaking to correct Cain’s memory of events.  The way that the footnotes are read out exactly where they fall in the text also works extremely well, and it ensures that Cain’s misinformation never gets a chance to sit properly.  The final voice actor, Emma Gregory, also provides a few interesting sections to the audiobook, particularly as she narrates one of the recurring in-universe texts that is quoted, written by an older version of one of the supporting characters (Guardswoman Sulla, who gets promoted to a general in the future). Gregory captures the pride and arrogance of Sulla, as well as her devotion to Cain, perfectly, and I felt that this additional performance was a great part of the production.  All this incredible voice work, as well as the amazing story that it brings to life, ensures that For the Emperor’s audiobook is particularly awesome and really worth listening to.  With a runtime of just under 9 hours, this is a really easy audiobook to get through, and I powered through it in only a couple of days, mainly because of how much fun I was having, and I cannot recommend this format enough.

Look, I think it is clear to see that I loved For the Emperor and had a fantastic time reading this awesome book.  Sandy Mitchell did something pretty special with this first entry in the epic Ciaphas Cain series, and I am now a massive fan of this series and the titular character.  Loaded with so much clever humour, fantastic Warhammer elements, and a strong and surprisingly intense narrative, For the Emperor is pretty much perfect, and there is so much for people to enjoy.  As a result, this book is particularly highly recommended, and I fully intend to get more Ciaphas Cain fun and manipulations in the future.

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3 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday – For the Emperor by Sandy Mitchell

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Warhammer 40,000 novels – The Unseen Library

  2. Pingback: WWW Wednesday – 15 March 2023 – The Unseen Library

  3. Pingback: Throwback Thursday – Warhammer 40,000: Caves of Ice by Sandy Mitchell – The Unseen Library

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