So I’m trying something new today here at Unusual Things. I’ve had the idea for a post series like this in the back of my head for a while now, and while it’s not going to be a regular series like Being a Better Writer is, I do hope it might be an occasional counterpart.
So first up, what is this post? Well, Why You Should Read … is a recommendation post. I’ve said before on this site (more than once actually) that writers need to read. It’s an important part of being a writer. Reading other’s works is an vital way to broaden your writing horizons in all aspects. And, in that vein, I do follow my own advice and do my best to read a decent number of books per year (usually around fifty, but be noted that I’m a fairly swift reader, so don’t feel like that’s some sort of milestone you need to reach). Various sources and genres, too.
In any case, Why You Should Read … is kind of the result. Because every so often I’ll pick up a book and read it that makes me think “Whoa. That was really good!” for one reason or another. This in turn makes me want to suggest it to you readers for one reason or another (and don’t worry, I’ll be dividing my recommendation by spoiler potential, so you’ll be able to stay clear of those if you so desire, though the recommendation may not be as grounded).
Now, minor disclaimers here before we get started. First, I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this recommendation. This is a title I picked up and read of my own free will that I am in turn recommending for reader consideration for one reason or another (the rest of the post will get into that). I’ve not received any compensation whatsoever for recommending this book.
Second, as always, I’d recommend anyone looking for a few more good books to head over to my books page and start browsing! You can read samples, grab bonuses … I recommend each and every one of those!
Final disclaimer: What did you think of this post? Comment below, past the “End Spoilers” bar and let me know if you like the idea!
Right, with the pre-amble taken care of, let’s get this Why You Should Read … underway! Buckle up readers, because it’s time to meet Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium!
Now, I’m going to get something out of the way right away here: Yes, this is a Warhammer 40K book. If you know what that is, or perhaps harbor some initial judgement of the title based on that fact: Wait! Don’t turn away! Give me a moment to explain myself, after I explain what Warhammer 40K is for those who don’t know.
For those of you not familiar with the moniker, Warhammer 40K is a tabletop miniatures game that has been around for decades, chronicling a grim (often to the point of hilarity) and dark future in the 41st millennium (Or year 40,000, hence the 40K in the name) where pretty much the entire galaxy is at war. No, scratch that. There’s no “pretty much” about it. The galaxy is at war, with something like twelve major factions (and dozens minor) all vying for various objectives and goals. Given that it’s been around for decades, the established lore, despite being for a tabletop miniatures game, is actually pretty deep, though a lot of it tends to be fairly dark and grim, centered as it is around this endless war between all the various factions.
Chief among these factions is the Imperium of Man, a vast empire that’s roughly analogous with a fallen Roman Empire insofar as tech and culture goes. Mankind was once glorious and awesome, like most high-end Sci-Fi civilizations, but a number of different elements to deep to go into here threw them into a dark age, to the degree that the manipulation of much of their technology has become a sort of religion rather than understanding. Basically, they’re the dregs of what mankind once was, life is pretty grim, and they’re constantly beset on all sides by various other alien entities that want mankind’s territory, souls, biomass, whatever.
So think “future dark ages” and you’ve pretty much got it. Naturally, this is, as was stated, a pretty grim setting, and most of the books delve into the darkness of this future, the futility of it, the religious devotion of the people of the Imperium to their golden emperor (long story, just roll with it), and of course, lots of war.
Yes, very much a home run worth of reading material for anyone who likes grim uncertainty mixed with gore, lots of warfare, and well, most of the other trappings already mentioned. And if you don’t like those things, you’ve probably already decided that anything bearing the Warhammer 40K moniker isn’t for you (or may have decided that upon reading that last description).
But don’t click away just yet. See, Ciaphas Cain is not like other Warhammer 40K books out there. In fact, it could almost be considered the opposite, a grand skewering of the universe that at the same time plays it completely straight. Which is why I recommend it: Even if you’re not a fan of 40K‘s grim, unrelenting warfare, you’ll likely still enjoy Ciaphas.
Why? Simple. Because Cain is a coward.
See, Ciaphas Cain is a commissar, an officer of high rank in the Imperium military who … Well, I’m not familiar enough with military ranks and offices around the world to come up with a comparison off the cuff, but his position is almost like that of a KGB officer assigned to the military to make sure everyone is “playing by the proper rules.” Showing fealty to the Emperor, not breaking in the face of combat. In fact, Imperium Commissars are quite well known for being absurd sticklers to the rules and for being more than willing to shoot their own men to make them charge forward, as ‘cowardice is a sign of heresy before the empire and a disgrace to the Imperium’ … but more honestly usually a way of shoving them forward.
As you can imagine, they’re not popular individuals. Sticklers for rules, and often with a stick up their own butts, they’re pretty much unpleasant individuals, and a lot of them, thanks to the Imperium’s schooling, end up universally single-minded (and, as Cain points out, tend to suffer surprisingly high casualties, even in areas where little to no fighting took place).
What makes Ciaphas Cain different, and in fact what changes the entire tone of the book (and the first reason as to why I recommend it) is that he’s none of these things. In fact, as the book explains (being a collection of personal memoirs and journal entries from the protagonist) Cain just went for the position because it afforded him the most freedom to be a coward and lead from the back. He has no intention of getting in a firefight, or even being sent to the front.
So of course, naturally, and according to the laws of the purest slapstick, every time he tries to make an inglorious, subversive retreat to save his own skin, he stumbles upon a flanking maneuver of the enemy, inadvertently saving the day and coming out looking like a tactical genius, or happens to avoid a retaliatory surprise strike or ambush no one could have seen coming.
In other words, every time Cain tries to be a coward and save his own skin, he ends up becoming a hero in the eyes of his men, and a tactical and strategic genius in the eyes of his superiors. Which means that of course they want to throw him into the exact scenarios he’d rather avoid because “Hey, this guy wins battles!”
In other words, Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium stars the classic “hero that really isn’t a hero” in a comedy of wartime slapstick that subverts everything the Imperium stands for while at the same time pointing out how blind and ridiculous the Imperium can be.
That’s right, it’s a Warhammer 40K comedy of wartime errors. One that subverts everything Warhammer 40K tends to be. And it’s gloriously fun as a result, and I’d recommend entirely based on that premise alone. It’s what turned me onto it.
Okay, it doesn’t hurt that it’s quite well written. The author, Sandy Mitchell, deserves a hand for this, because Ciaphas Cain is far above average when it comes to its prose, voice, and style. Not only does it really feel like the personal accounts of a man from another century in time, like the book you’re holding could be stained with oil and mud from some far-flung battlefield, but it holds an incredibly firm and distinctive set of voices while doing so.
Of course, I’m not just recommending it because of its comedic subversions. No, not at all, though that’s more than enough reason to go picking up a copy on your own. It also happens to be a solid piece of Military Sci-Fi, if you enjoy battles and combat. But to explain further its victories, I’m going to have to get into some major spoilers.
If what I’ve said so far sounds great, then go pick up a copy! You can find it at Amazon, or likely at local book retailers (and if not, I’m sure they can get a copy for you). Even without getting into spoilers, if what I’ve described thus far sounds appealing, you should go ahead and pick it up. As for the real reason I’m recommending Ciaphas …
MAJOR SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
SERIOUSLY, THIS SPOILER CHANGES THE ENTIRETY OF THE BOOK!
YOU HAVE BEEN DOUBLY WARNED!
Okay, you’ve moved past this point. Spoilers are now free. You ready? Here we go. The big twist.
Ciaphas is lying.
It takes a little bit to realize this, of course, though I can already see some of you saying “Well duh, he’s a coward! Why would he tell the truth?” But as the series moves on, the reader is exposed to footnotes, as well as intermittent, supplementary chapters, coming from a member of the Ordos of the Inquisition (yes, they’re generally as bad as the name would suggest) who is compiling what she can find of Cain’s records after the fact (whether that fact is his death or not, we don’t discover. We do know, however that he is still regarded as a hero and one of the greatest commissars of all time). As well, she knew him personally. And she inserts footnotes, corrects Cain’s assumptions from time to time, and generally fills the audience in on what Cain leaves unsaid or didn’t bother to write, mixed with her own observations.
The thing is, irregularities start to show up. Little things that don’t quite make sense. Inconsistencies of character and motive, both in what the inquisitor finds, and in what Cain says. It’s subtle—extremely so, to the degree that it took me until the third or fourth “book” in Hero to spot it—but once it “clicks,” the whole series opens up.
Cain is lying, but not about what he did. He’s lying about being a coward.
Okay, granted, he might have started out as one. Or panicked in his first battle, leading to his initial story. Or maybe not. It’s all left up in the air. But all his “reasoning,” while perhaps having a grain of truth to it (he does like the easy life) isn’t quite honest. And this is the point where, in my mind, Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium goes from being a good, fun book to a great one, and shows that the author truly gets the grim, horrid setting of Warhammer 40K.
Cain paints himself as a false hero because he truly is one of the best commissars they’ve ever had. And he does it by being exactly what a commissar shouldn’t be. He cares about his men. He knows who they are. He protects them, but at the same time understands what happens if he lets that get in the way of their duty. He strives to understand not just the enemy, but their perspective, and even holds some of them on an equal plinth (both are acts of heresy among the Imperium), rather than assume they’re just inferior to man.
And then, to hide that fact that everything he does, his actions and his character, are both noble and completely against everything a commissar should be, he hides behind the facade of a coward, to make all his observations appear to be that of a frightened incompetent.
And it’s wonderfully concealed. It’s only by paying attention to the incongruous details, the little bits of lie that don’t quite add up, that the whole story comes to light. Cain plays a dutiful Commissar that is secretly a coward … that is then secretly acting at being a coward, and does it so well that crud, I’m not even certain he’s entirely honest with himself about what he’s doing.
Why hide this in his memoir? Because the Imperium is crazy enough—and he knows this—that if he wrote down his real reasoning, not only would he find himself up for a summary execution, but likely everyone he ever served with, since there’d be no telling how far his “heresy” could have spread.
But by playing the coward, if anyone ever discovered “the truth” about Cain, the only one to pay for it would be Cain … not the men and women under his command.
This is a massive spoiler, because the moment you figure this out, everything changes. When it finally clicked in my head, I actually flipped back to earlier accounts and suddenly saw everything in a new light about the battles he’d faced and the decisions he’d made.
And it is so well written. Cain is perhaps one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve ever read as a result. Everything is so nicely hidden, so well tucked-away within itself. This book deserves more praise than its gotten.
Which, in turn, is why I can’t recommend it enough if you like the idea of an unreliable narrator. And that, readers, is Why You Should Read … Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium.