Sunday 31 March 2024

Ciaphas Cain: The Greater Good & Old Soldiers Never Die by Sandy Mitchell

The Imperial planet of Quadravidia has come under attack by the Tau. Commissar Ciaphas Cain arrives to advise on the defence of the planet, after several previous encounters with the untrustworthy species. However, the Tau call an unexpected ceasefire in the face of a greater, mutual threat: an incoming Tyranid Hive Fleet. Cain's mission moves from combat to diplomacy as he has to broker a deal between the Tau and Imperium - the latter not known for its interstellar diplomacy - and then help defend the planet from the new alien menace.

We're back in the mayhem with the ninth novel of Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain series, in which the grim darkness of the far future is alleviated by the presence of the most self-preserving and undeserved glory-receiving specimen in the Imperium of Man.

The Greater Good puts Cain's reputation front and centre as he has to negotiate a peace deal between the Imperium - whose entire ideology is "shoot aliens in the face and never, ever talk to them," - and the Tau, a race dedicated to the somewhat nebulous concept of "the greater good." There's a degree of a comedy of manners here as the two species' highly incompatible ways of working clash with Cain trying to avoid war in the face of the greater Tyranid threat.

This stuff takes up a few chapters and then we're back to the battle front as bullets fly and large things explode spectacularly. Mitchell is accomplished at both the action and the black comedy sides of the setting (Cain sometimes feeling like the Only Sane Man in the entire barmy Warhammer 40,000 universe) and serves up both with aplomb here. Particularly entertaining are the deranged human scientists who think experimenting on live Tyranids is a good idea (spoiler: it isn't) and the Space Marines who worryingly agree with them.

There's a nice amount of variety to the story, as it moves from diplomacy to grim humour to action, although it does feel some ideas are left under-explored, such as the human inhabitants of the Tau Empire and how they regard the Imperium from a human, outsider perspective. There's also the usual advice that, although the omnibuses are most economical way to enjoy Cain's story, it's perhaps a good idea to read other things between the books, as Mitchell is perhaps less concerned than other authors in the setting with varying his prose style or characterisation between stories.

Still, this is an exciting action story with some laughs and some brief moments of thoughtful discussion. The Greater Good (****) is definitely one of the stronger entries to the series.

Also included in the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus is the long novella/short novel Old Soldiers Never Die (****), which is a fast-paced zombie story as Cain and his trusty Valhallan allies find themselves stuck on a planet beset by a particularly nasty Chaos curse. Ciaphas Cain vs. Zombies is just as good as it sounds on the tin, and the short format means the story doesn't outstay its welcome.

Ciaphas Cain Novel Timeline

919.M41 (40,919 CE)Fight or Flight (Novella). Cain meets Jurgen, deploys with the 12th Valhallan Field Artillery to Desolatia IV.

924Death or Glory (Book #4): Perlia campaign.

928Echoes of the Tomb (Short Story): Adeptus Mechanicus mission, fights necrons.

928The Emperor’s Finest (Book #7): Cain joins Reclaimer Space Marines, aids in Space Hulk retrieval mission.

931For the Emperor (Book #1): Gravalax campaign, formation of the 597th Valhallan Regiment.

932Caves of Ice (Book #2): Simia Orichalcae campaign.

932: Duty Calls (Book #5): Periremunda campaign.

937: The Traitor’s Hand (Book #3): Adumbria campaign.

938: Old Soldiers Never Die (Novella): Lentonia campaign.

942The Last Ditch (Book #8): Nusquam Fundumentibus campaign.

c. 951-954Choose Your Enemies (Book #10): Ironfound campaign.

992The Greater Good (Book #9): Siege of Quadravidia.

c. 993Vainglorious (Book #11): Eucopia engagement.

999 (40,999 CE)Cain’s Last Stand (Book #6): Thirteenth Black Crusade. Chaos assault on Perlia, Cain comes out of retirement to lead defence.

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