Content warning: brief references to violence and mental health issues.
A couple months ago, I wrote a brief post on this blog about my newfound interest in media set in the Warhammer 40K universe, summarizing a few aspects of the lore that got me interested in diving into such a vast and unique franchise. I mentioned that I had really enjoyed the first couple entries in a book series about a character named Ciaphas Cain, and intended to read all of them before too long. Well, about ten weeks after first cracking open book one, I finally finished the tenth and latest in the series—and it only took me so long because a few of them were on backorder at the local bookstore for a while. I loved these books, and I absolutely devoured them. They’ve got action, intrigue, romance, comedy, a bit of horror, metafictional footnotes, and a protagonist who completely charmed me from page one. I’m determined to get more people to read them, so if any of that sounds interesting to you, I hope you’ll enjoy this more in-depth reflection on my journey with them, starting from the role they played in getting me into 40K in the first place. Also, since I haven’t seen one anywhere else, I’ve made a little list of every entry in the series—which includes a lot of short stories and a couple audio dramas alongside the main books—so check that out if you’re not sure where to start, or if you want to make sure you don’t miss a single one of Cain’s memorable adventures.
I initially started reading these books on the recommendation of one of my closest friends, whom I really have to thank for bringing so much fun into my life by getting me into this whole new hobby of mine—albeit in a pretty roundabout way. He started by asking me, “Do you know what a commissar is?” and when I said I didn’t, he explained the following: a commissar is a real job that’s existed in a few actual authoritarian regimes in history, and is sort of a representative of the government’s authority over the military. They’re basically supposed to hang around the troops watching out for any majorly dissenting opinions, and forming a deterrent to desertion by wielding the authority to execute people as they see fit. The theoretical ideal of how their job goes is that if one guy tries to run away from battle, the commissar shoots him in the back, and no one ever tries it again—but in practice, the soldiers are likely to figure out that there are way more of them than there are of the commissar, the result being that a commissar’s life expectancy is not very long. The protagonist of these books, my friend explained, is a commissar who’s extremely aware of that, and who therefore spends a lot of time worrying about his reputation and trying to make sure everyone likes him in hopes of surviving this dangerous job that he doesn’t really have a choice about either. At the end of this explanation, I said, “That does sound really interesting. So it’s historical fiction?” And with a look of dawning realization about how much context he had unintentionally left out, my friend replied, “Oh. Oh. No. No, this takes place in the Warhammer 40K universe.”
I had no idea what that was at the time, but by that point I was invested enough to ask for further detail, and I never looked back. While I waited for my friend to lend me the first Ciaphas Cain collection, I actually ended up reading a couple other Warhammer books that I also enjoyed first (Baneblade and Shadowsword by Guy Haley), one of which actually provided an example of a commissar briefly appearing only to immediately get shot. So it was a good primer for fully understanding what’s at stake in the beginning of the first Cain book, For The Emperor, in which Commissar Cain desperately searches for a way out of actually sentencing anyone to death after a lethal fight breaks out within the regiment he was recently assigned to, trying to fulfil the duties and expectations of his job on some level while simultaneously avoiding signing his own figurative death warrant. The plot starts to involve a lot more action later on, which is also a lot of fun, but I especially enjoyed the complex diplomacy that it opened with, establishing one of the big issues at the heart of the series: that while Cain has a lot of authority on paper, he would often be putting himself at serious risk if he tried to actually exercise it, and also he doesn’t even want it that much anyway. It’s a really entertaining spin on the sort of sci-fi military story these books are that whatever adventure Cain is on, he would usually rather not be there, having likely comically failed at his attempts to get out of it. And for another unique spin, did I mention these books have footnotes?
On top of just generally starring a funny and lovable protagonist, the Ciaphas Cain books immediately drew me in with their metatextual framing device, wherein they’re presented as unpublished memoirs that Cain wrote and that another excellent character, Inquisitor Amberley Vail, is organizing and annotating for inclusion in secretive archives. I actually do a lot of archival research in my real job as an academic, so that’s generally a concept that appeals to me—but even more than that, this element of the story adds a lot of depth through highlighting the subjectivity of everyone in the story. Amberley often corrects instances where she thinks Cain was wrong or dishonest, and also includes excerpts from other texts to fill in context that he omitted, so you’re left with an impression of him as an at least slightly unreliable narrator. But at the same time, Amberley and the other writers she quotes are just as much characters in the story as he is, all just telling their own biased versions that might be equally far from the truth. It leaves the story extremely open to interpretation—and it’s through engaging with the text on that level that I think some of the best elements of it really shine.
What I find especially compelling about Ciaphas Cain as a character comes in the contradictions you can start to unravel between the way he tells his own story, and the somewhat dissenting details you start to pick up on as you go. He presents himself like a self-centered anti-hero who only ever stumbles into accidentally saving other people as a side effect of saving himself, and subsequently feels pressured to maintain a heroic reputation that he doesn’t really deserve—and you can decide to take him at face value if you want to, in which case a lot of his adventures are pretty funny. But the more I read, the more I saw evidence that, despite being a bit of a dick sometimes and definitely preferring to slack off than fight when possible, he really isn’t nearly as cowardly or selfish as he claims to be. When it really matters, he consistently does step up and risk his own life to save others in all manner of terrifying situations, only to play it off like he did it either by accident or to make himself look good—when after so many times, there’s no way that’s always the case. The more of these books I read, the more I felt like they painted a slightly sad picture of a man who genuinely is very kind, brave, and heroic, but can’t seem to see those qualities in himself the way everyone else can.
And at the risk of getting a bit more openly emotional about Warhammer than any self-respecting adult would want to admit to, it was that aspect of these books that made them so helpful and comforting to me during a really difficult time. Having struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, I could really connect with the feeling the protagonist seems to have that deep down inside he’s secretly a bad person, and that none of the demonstrably good things he’s done really count because he didn’t have perfect pure selfless motives. And then it started to occur to me that if I can read that and relate to it and come out of it saying, “aww, but he is a good guy really, and it’s sad that he doesn’t see it,” maybe I can apply the same thinking to myself. Or if I can’t quite get there yet, maybe I can at least draw some inspiration from his talent for faking the confidence he doesn’t have, and pretend I believe in myself until the day that I actually do.
And there’s so much more I love about this series that I can’t even get into it all in too much detail without making this post as long as one of the books is. For one thing, you might not expect this from a sci-fi series by a male author centered on a male protagonist, but it actually has several really cool and developed female characters who sometimes get to contribute their own perspectives through the archival framing device. Amberley Vail is the main one giving regular amusing commentary, but there are several others I also really like who play important roles across the various books. Amberley and Cain also have a sweet and interesting romance that plays out mostly offscreen and implied for a long time, so you get to just gradually pick up on the hints that there’s something going on there, with a lot of the details left up to your imagination in a way that I thought made it especially fun. The books also start to jump around chronologically after the first three, and you get to see the contrast between the version of Cain you’ve gotten to know and the much less mature one at the beginning of his career, and then the older, retired one doing his best to prepare young students students for a life like his. Just like the constant ambiguity about some of Cain’s actions and motivations, these gaps in the timeline and other aspects of his life that are only ever mentioned indirectly continually encourage you to come up with your own ideas about what could fit into the missing pieces—and I think another big part of what made me form such a strong emotional connection to these books was the way that element of them inspired me creatively.
There’s just one thing that I can see potentially turning some people off from reading the whole series, and that’s that the books can get slightly repetitive in some regards as they go on. The beginnings tend to spend a bit of time re-establishing the same information you already know in case someone is jumping in with this one—I basically have the same few footnotes Amberley adds every time memorized—and the stories follow a roughly similar structure that you can start to predict once you’ve read a few. But personally, I had so much affection for the series that the repetition was fun and comforting, in the same way as something like a long-running procedural TV show you watch every week. I was anticipating the twists with glee, saying things like, “Oh, I bet this is going to happen, and then he’ll do something like this! That’s going to be awesome—I can’t wait.” And even if you have a general idea of how the main events might play out, I don’t think it really robs the story of any of the emotional impact that comes from the details and from how Cain reacts. Just be prepared for Amberley to remind you that “kloms” is Valhallan slang for “kilometres” about seven times.
Or, if you start reading and find that you’re not quite feeling some entries in the series as much as others, you could always just skip some or try reading them out of order. They’re pretty well-suited to that, since the timeline isn’t always linear anyway. If that’s something you want to do, feel free to comment here or contact me on twitter, and I can recommend the books I thought were personal highlights, and fill you in on anything you might miss. I’ll honestly be really happy to hear from any readers of mine who have questions like that. Let me talk to you about Ciaphas Cain—I still have so much more to say.
In case it’s not already extremely obvious, the Ciaphas Cain series means a lot to me. They’re funny and exciting and a little bit sad, and they were exactly what I needed to read during a really difficult time in my life. And I think it’s too bad that, by virtue of their nature as part of the expanded-universe-type-lore of a tabletop game franchise, they’re very niche and not well-known outside that specific community. They’re genuinely extremely good books, and I hope this post inspires some more people to try them out, even if you might not have thought you were interested in Warhammer 40K before. I wasn’t either a few months ago, and now I have the beginnings of an Imperial Guard regiment sitting on my computer desk waiting for me to paint them. In a time when it sometimes feels like there’s nothing else to look forward to, I’m excited to keep discovering more about the universe of Warhammer 40K, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to it than the one provided by my friend’s attempts at explaining Ciaphas Cain.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to take a look at the little list I put together of everything in the series. Also hang on, I got to the end of this post and realized I totally forgot to mention Jurgen, but I don’t want to keep going on for a whole other paragraph. Read the books to find out who Jurgen is and then you’ll appreciate that this is funny!