Caves of Ice (Ciaphas Cain #02) by Sandy Mitchell – Book Review
Another one of The Ciaphas Cain series of Warhammer 40k novels has been translated to audiobook format and after enjoying For the Emperor to no end, I just knew I had to get it. Once more narrated by Stephen Perring, with additional work done by Penelope Rawlins and Emma Gregory, the series about the not at all courageous hero of the Imperium continues to be a source of entertainment, despite it lacking as memorable a climax as the first novel in the series.
As far as blurbs go, that of Caves of Ice is certainly among the more frugal ones I’ve read: “Still attached to the Valhallans, Commissar Ciaphas Cain fights orcs and necrons on the ice world of Frigidia.” It’s a short novel, and I suppose if you’re familiar with the Empire’s most selfish—yet competent–Commisar, you need little more in the way of convincing.
The strongest selling point of this series is that unlike the vast majority of Warhammer 40k novels out there, it is hardly grimdark. Yes, monstrous creatures, brutish hordes of orcs, metallic horrors beneath the depths of the earth are all to be found in Mitchell’s Caves of Ice, but the tone the novel embraces, a humour only slightly less dry than in For the Emperor, makes of the grim future of the 40th millennium something with a little more joie de vivre. With orcs and metallic hordes that shoot laser beams which melt organic flesh, granted, but it still counts for something!
Everything Ciaphas Cain does is calculated to increase his chances of survival. As a Commissar, that is saying a lot—the members of the Commissariat are not particularly popular with the rank and file, and have a tendency of getting shot in the back when a situation gets heated…and with the Imperial Guard, any given situation getting heated is just a matter of time. How does Cain make sure he doesn’t share in the fate of so many other Imperials of his rank? He’s friendly with the troops, and does his best to sell the illusion that he cares for them. Whether he actually does is for the reader to decide; his own words point to the contrary, but his actions…well, Cain is a mystery. One wrapped in self-deprecating humour, and always looking out for his best survival. The fact that his instinct for self-preservation leads Cain into danger time and again shouldn’t convince you of his heroism. It’s all measured in such a way as to avoid greater peril to his person – though whether it succeeds, that’s another question entirely.
The cast of Mitchell’s first Cain novel returns in this one, and they’re as clueless about the good Commissar’s self-described true nature as ever; whatever the man does, they lap it up with barely a question. Colonel Castine, the boisterous General Sulla and her small sections of purple prose, several others – Amusing as always is Cain’s man-servant, Jurgen. Cain calls him aide, I think, but let’s not kid ourselves, I know a man-servant when I hear one, and you can smell it on Jurgen from a mile away.*
Perring continues to do impressive work with Cain’s internal monologue—the book is told in the first-person, and the narrator always delivers on the irony so rich in Sandy Mitchell’s text, and I would argue, his performance elevates the story, injects a little extra something to the narrative that I’m not certain I would’ve found otherwise. This is true about many of the Black Library narrators; Games Workshop has a fine track record with the folks they get to read Penelope Rawlins is, similarly, brilliant as Inquisitor Amberly Veil, whose footnotes are a great way to inject both humour and interesting information outside of Cain’s very self-centred perspective.
Caves of Ice is a fun book – it lacks something of a climax, or rather, doesn’t take the time necessary to develop it in full. Pity – there’s always a little something that keeps me from giving this particular chapter in the darling Commissar’s journey my full recommendation.
As it is, this will scratch a certain itch, if that itch has anything to do with pulpy space adventures with a helping of humour, or with a protagonist whose desire to live outweighs all else. Or, the God-Emperor forbid, with the slaughter of many thousands of orcs.
*For those who have neither read nor listened to any of the Ciaphas Cain books, Jurgen’s odor is the topic of many a paragraph in Sandy Mitchell’s novels.