‘For the Emperor’ brings in an unexpected hero

Steele Giles, Staff Writer

Tales of people who rise to heroism demonstrate how the human spirit shines in adversity.


People who are heroes in spite of their best efforts to the contrary are just hilarious.


“For the Emperor,” by Sandy Mitchell, is one of my go-to examples for the latter.


First off, one needs to know that this is the first of the Ciaphas Cain series, set in the world of Warhammer 40,000. There’s a baseline knowledge of the setting assumed in the book and, while it is technically possible to go in blind, I recommend at least trawling the internet for a rundown of how the world works before starting it.


In the interest of time, the future that Warhammer 40k paints is grim in the extreme. Over a dozen factions are killing each other for control over the galaxy, and many of them are divided by infighting and politics.


“For the Emperor” starts off with Cain being assigned to the newly formed 597th Valhallan regiment.


Unfortunately, as it is made up of two units that were formerly unisex, tensions are running high between them.


A chunk of the book is taken up with him putting his newly acquired house in order without resorting to decimation.


After that, they get deployed onto a planet that is on the verge of defecting to another faction, and things quickly spiral out of control.


Not helping things are what appears to be the machinations of another force behind the scenes and the appearance of an Imperial black ops team doesn’t bode well for Cain’s peace of mind.


As the first book in the series, “For the Emperor” sets up a lot of the character quirks and narrative gags that Mitchell will come to rely on later—foremost is Cain’s self-deprecation, apparent cowardice and tendency to find himself in much deeper water while looking for the kiddie pool.


Something about the series that takes some getting used to is the formatting.


The novels are presented as excerpts from Cain’s memoirs, edited and arranged by his on-again, off-again girlfriend Amberley Vail. As such, they are peppered with footnotes, as she attempts to explain details he assumes the reader will understand and comments on some of his more embellished passages. While generally helpful, they can easily become distracting and derailing.


The most derailing parts of the book are when Amberley feels the need to give the readers a sense of the bigger picture surrounding Cain’s exploits. The passages don’t really add anything and really only act as buffers to give the reader a little breather. Feel no shame in skipping them.


Cain’s most polarizing trait is his so-called cowardice. Whether it is an interesting quirk of the character or something he plays up without any real basis is an exercise best left to the reader. No, seriously. The author doesn’t even know what Cain really is.


On the one hand, he’ll skive off work and try to get himself assigned to the cushiest, least dangerous jobs he can locate. On the other hand, he’ll point out that saving his own hide is more easily accomplished by leaping into the fray and will get into the thick of it with a chainsaw sword and laser pistol.


Is “For the Emperor” a good read? It’s certainly fun and an interesting examination of the anatomy of a hero, but the prohibitively complex setting raises a pretty high barrier to entry for the series. For the complicated and genuinely entertaining character, I’d call it worth a bit of preemptive research.