Ciaphas Cain has a problem; since leaving the Schola Progenium as an Imperial commissar, all he’s ever wanted is a nice, safe posting, far away from any action, where he can keep his head down and count the years until his retirement. Unfortunately, his unwanted reputation for heroism follows him wherever he goes, together with the risk of imminent death. Even a lofty posting to a brigade headquarters isn’t safe, since most general officers tend to see him as the perfect man to lead the most daring (i.e., suicidal) missions they can imagine. His only safe option, he reasons, is to request a transfer back to a serving line regiment.
He is saddled with the fractious Valhallan 296th/301st , the amalgamation of two Valhallan Ice Warriors regiments torn to pieces by Tyranids on Corania, while it is en route to Gravalax. The fact that the unit’s new and surprisingly young C.O., Colonel Regina Kasteen, is genuinely glad to see him (a Commissar) and Jurgen when they step off the transport, gives him an idea how bad things are.
The 296th was a rear-echelon all-female regiment, while the 301st was a battle-hardened all-male one. The remnants of the two units openly detest each other, and the male troopers understandably resent Kasteen’s promotion (by virtue of simple seniority) over their more combat-experienced senior officer, Ruput Broklaw.
Less than a week after Cain’s arrival, a riot breaks out in the troop ship’s mess hall that leaves several troopers and naval provosts dead. Cain manages to stare down the rioters, preventing an all-out bloodbath from engulfing the rest of the ship.
In conference with the regiment’s senior officers, Cain declares that the regiment will never be an effective fighting force unless its troopers learn to work together, so he orders them integrated together at squad level, and, in order to preserve their pride, re-designates the regiment as the Valhallan 597th (296 + 301); the two former regiments, he explains, are not being abolished, only reborn and redefined. Kasteen and her subordinates are skeptical, but he lightly reminds them that another Commissar would have happily ordered wholesale executions to restore discipline, and that the Departmento Munitorum would be equally pleased to re-designate the regiment as a Penal Legion.
Gradually, the troopers begin to adapt to the change, and morale recovers. But it threatens to dive again when the captain of the ship demands that the worst of the rioters be tried for murder and shot. Cain has no authority to overrule the Navy, so he works out a clever compromise: the five troopers found to have committed murder are tried and convicted, but instead of execution, he orders them held until they can be transferred to a Penal Legion, or, failing that, “volunteer” for a particularly dangerous mission.
By the time the ship has reached Gravalax, the 597th is united in regarding Cain as one of their own.
The regiment’s official mission is to police Gravalax and discourage the local populace from defecting to the Tau Empire, which seems set on annexing the planet. Right away, Cain notices the conspicuous lack of the respect, or fear, he is used to seeing among Imperial populations whenever a Guard unit makes planetfall. He also gravely notes the enthusiasm with which the people have adopted Tau styles of dress and architecture.
Soon after the regiment establishes its base, Cain is surprised to be hailed by an old friend, Toren Divas from the Valhallan 12th Field Artillery, also deployed to Gravalax. The two men spend a night out on the town, and Divas, half-drunk, mentions rumors that the situation is serious enough that an Inquisitor is poking around. While staggering home, they run into a gang of pro-Tau locals, and are nearly beaten to death, before a Kroot warrior, Gorok, appears and tells them to go home.
Cain and Kasteen are invited to a reception at the Governor’s palace, where they are introduced to the vapid (and, Cain suspects, inbred) Governor Grice, the local Imperial envoy Erasmus Donali, and a Rogue Trader named Orelius. Cain has heard enough gossip to suspect Orelius of being the rumoured Inquisitor, but he is most captivated by the young lounge singer providing entertainment for the party, Amberley Vail. They share a few minutes of conversation, and a dance around the room, before the footman announces the arrival of the Tau ambassador.
Moments after the Ambassador pays his respects to the governor, a bolter is fired, and the Ambassador falls dead. No one saw where the shot came from, but some in the Ambassador’s entourage accuse the Imperials of killing him. Cain steps in and narrowly prevents a firefight, pointing out reasonably that whoever killed the Ambassador is trying to provoke war between the two factions.
Unfortunately, news of the crime has already spread, and word comes in that there is rioting in the streets between pro-Tau and anti-xenos extremists. Kasteen voxes the regimental headquarters, ordering them to support the PDF in restoring order, but not to engage the Tau for any reason. When another hidden agent destroys the Tau’s transport skimmer with a rocket, Cain and his Guard escort reluctantly agree to escort the Ambassador’s party back to their compound. Doing so forces them to shoot an over-zealous PDF lieutenant and his squad that mistakes them for Tau sympathizers, but returning the Tau safely helps prevent open war, although the rioting that engulfs the city for the rest of the night is savage.
Cain’s actions have brought him to the attention of Lord General Zyvan himself, who frankly is reluctant to draw the Imperial Guard into a protracted conflict with the Tau over a “mudball” like Gravalax. Instead, the Guard regiments are detailed to box in and neutralize the rebellious PDF elements who are still fighting, while Donali makes it known that Cain is heading the investigation into finding the Ambassador’s killer.
As Kasteen and the 597th are preparing to advance against a rebel stronghold, Cain invents a task that will let him absent himself – putting the fear of the Emperor into a loyalist PDF unit that is maintaining a somewhat slack perimeter around another rebel garrison.
Accompanied by Lieutenant Sulla’s platoon, including Sergeant Lustig’s squad (who escorted him and Kasteen from the Governor’s Palace), Cain visits the PDF, only to find that they are desperately holding their own against a much larger rebel force, having been instructed by “the inquisitor” to keep guard while the inquisitor was investigating something in the undercity. Cain acts quickly, igniting a promethium stockpile that starts to collapse the rebels’ fort on them, before receiving an urgent call for extraction from the Inquisitor’s party over the vox. Given the choice between charging into a burning building and taking the blame for an Inquisitor’s death, Cain chooses the former without much thought. With a borrowed Chimera, he and Jurgen extract the Inquisitor’s party under heavy fire from the rebels… only to be stupefied when the Inquisitor introduces herself – Amberley Vail.
Meanwhile, Sulla manages to break the back of the rebel position with a reckless, albeit effective, charge, led by herself and her Command Squad.
No longer hiding her real identity, Inquisitor Vail meets in private with Cain and Zyvan, and fills them in on the strategic situation: by itself, Gravalax is not worth fighting a protracted, bloody war with the Tau, especially when the Imperium’s military resources may be needed elsewhere, with ominous signs of a new Tyranid Hive Fleet on the horizon and Necrons awakening all over the galaxy. On the other hand, simply letting the Tau annex the planet would invite them to do the same to other Imperial worlds.
Vail concludes that the cleanest way to resolve the situation is to find and destroy the third party hoping to provoke war between the two sides. That will mean leading another team down to the undercity, which she was investigating when they were attacked. Since her original team was killed or injured, she needs Cain to supply her with another. With a sinking feeling, Cain realizes that she is “inviting” him along.
To Cain’s further dismay, the escorts she selects to accompany them are the five condemned troopers from the Righteous Wrath, promising a pardon to any who come back alive – and the terrible, patient vengeance of the Inquisition on any of them who get treacherous ideas. The one bright spot is that Jurgen volunteers to come along and watch Cain’s back.
But just as they are descending into the undercity, they receive word that the PDF has rebelled, attacking Guard and Tau alike. The Governor has panicked and ordered the Guard to mobilize, and the Tau are doing the same. War has broken out across Gravalax, and the Guard and Tau forces are only a hairsbreadth from opening fire on each other.
Under the city, they come upon a Tau scouting party on the same errand, which fortunately includes Gorok (the Kroot Cain encountered earlier). The two parties are able to broker a temporary alliance, and continue on together. Coming upon the bodies of some humans killed by their mysterious enemy, Gorok samples their flesh, and declares it “tainted” – which gives them the first idea of their true enemy: Genestealers, infiltrating the population and trying to throw it into anarchy and make the planet easy pickings for an incoming Hive Fleet.
Aboveground, General Zyvan orders the 597th to place the Governor under arrest, seeing it as the best way to pacify the Tau. However, when they reach the governor’s palace, they are opposed by a force larger, better-armed, and more vicious than any of them expected.
Stumbling onto a genestealer, nest, Cain and Vail’s party is all but wiped out, and the two of them are separated from Jurgen when a wall collapses on him, apparently killing him. Cain and Vail have to find their way back to the surface, relying on Cain’s innate sense of direction in an underground environment. For a moment they argue over whether he really knows where he’s going, putting him in mind of “a couple of juvies on a disappointing date” – an image so incongruous with their situation that both of them burst into hysterical laughter.
After this release of tension, they are able to focus on finding their way back to the surface – and neither of them can muster much surprise when a route from the genestealers’ nest takes them to a secret cellar beneath the Governor’s palace. Just then they are rushed by a brood of purestrains, and have to fight their way through. To Cain’s surprise and delight, Jurgen appears in the tunnel behind them, along with the last remaining trooper from their party. Then the trooper goes down, shot in the head by the Genestealer Patriarch: Governor Grice. Seeing the third arm extending from Grice’s chest, Cain swiftly realizes where the shot that killed the Tau ambassador came from.
Outside the Palace, the Valhallans are alarmed when the Tau appear in force – Hammerheads, Battlesuits, the works – and almost equally surprised when the xenos open fire on the traitor forces. Though it goes against the grain, the Guard forms up behind the Tau to fight their common enemy together.
Inside the palace, Grice drops Jurgen with a bolt pistol round to the head, though it ricochets off his helmet and the wound is not fatal. Amberley is narrowly saved from taking his next shot by her displacer field. While Cain tries to aim Jurgen’s dropped hellgun at the Governor, Amberley drops him with a poisoned dart from a digital needler concealed in her ring. The Governor dies after a few seconds of agony which go a long way towards relieving Cain’s feelings.
Cain, Vail, and the wounded Jurgen are escorted out of the Palace by the recently-arrived Valhallans, and it seems war has been averted. Further good news comes when two of the troopers from their party appear at the tunnel entrance, miraculously alive. Suspicious, Cain questions them about what happened, and they say they don’t remember clearly. Without further explanation, Cain draws his laspistol and shoots them both in the head. Kasteen and Broklaw are outraged, until Cain points to an identical wound in each of their sides, revealing that they were both infected by the genestealers. Understanding swiftly, Kasteen orders the bodies incinerated.
At the same time, two Pathfinders from the Tau party likewise miraculously appear, and are reunited with their own people. Cain is alarmed, but Amberley quells him with a look, and a secret smirk – if the Pathfinders are similarly infected, she has no intention of warning the Tau.
With Grice’s death, the war comes to an end, though the genestealer infestation remains a carefully guarded secret.
Cain and Vail dine at an exclusive restaurant, where she asks after Jurgen and is pleased to hear that he is recovering steadily.
As for the Tau, to general surprise, they are abandoning Gravalax. As Donali explains, they concluded that, if the Imperium was so determined to fight a protracted, bloody war to hold on to the planet, it would not “advance the Greater Good” for the Tau to give them the opportunity.
Vail has some surprising news for Cain: she has been observing Jurgen closely, including her psyker, Rakel’s violent reaction to him when Cain first rescued their party from the undercity. Jurgen, she explains, is a Blank — a staggeringly rare attribute that nullifies psychic or daemonic forces in his proximity. Cain is afraid that Vail will recruit him, but she confesses that the Inquisition is much more divided and factionalized than it appears on the outside, and most inquisitors learn to guard their resources jealously. She decides it is safest to leave Jurgen where he is, adding that she’ll know where to find them if she needs them. Cain is inwardly terrified at the idea of being recruited to any more Inquisitorial errands, but joins her in toasting “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Gaunt and the Ghosts were of the Sabbat Crusade, on the bleeding edge fighting the forces of Chaos directly. Cain on the other hand seems to attach himself where ever he thinks the least danger is and in this book only deals with xenos and genestealers, neither of which are direct forces of Chaos (as far as I can tell). It shined a different light on the Imperium of Man, deliberately so and it made me wonder just how humanity had survived in space so long.
While Gaunt is serious and driven by duty, Cain is just trying to survive, cherry picking what he thinks are the easy jobs and doing what he thinks is the always the safest and easiest route. This is a semi-comical series in that no matter what he does Cain comes across looking like a Hero of the Imperium. It is fun to read about to be honest.
The main issue I had with this book was in its organization. It is from Cain’s journals, but they are being processed through the Inquisitor Vail and there are footnotes and addendums. It is a deliberately layered narrative that is relying on the unreliableness of both narrators to give the readers the clues they need to pick out the truth. That’s a lot of work for a franchise fiction book On the other hand, it adds to the overall amusement of reading these so I’m only mildly complaining instead of ranting.
There are 8 or 9 novels in this series and 4 or 5 short stories. I’ll be going through them all in the order they’re listed under, so the next couple of entries in the Ciaphus Cain series will be short stories. I don’t expect the reviews for those to be very long at all.