Flashman IN SPAAAACE: Sandy Mitchell’s Duty Calls.
Head to any bookstore, and you’re sure to find a sizeable shelf of ‘series’ fiction, or however you want to label it. Star Wars, Star Trek, D&D, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Magic: The Gathering…basically, any major multimedia geek property is bound to have at least a handful of cheap paperbacks written in that particular universe. After all, somebody keeps reading them, right?
Today, somebody happens to be me.
Licensed fiction is a funny thing. It’s arguably one of the ‘lowest’ forms of printed fiction, assuming you’re being snobby about it. I mean, it’s one thing to read ‘genre’ fiction, it’s even worse to read genre fiction that’s been so crassly commercialized. It doesn’t help that some of these tie-in books are just as hastily, terribly written as one might imagine. As Sturgeon’s law goes, “90 percent of everything is crud.” Of course, Sturgeon’s law applies to, well, everything, so there’s nothing to stop an ‘original’ novel from being terrible, as I’ve discussed in the past.
Duty Calls (ha ha, I said “Duty) is a Warhammer 40k novel, which means it’s got a particularly steep hill to climb. For those not familiar with the setting, Warhammer 40k is a sci-fi tabletop wargame in which you push expensive miniatures around a table and roll dice to have them fight. Games Workshop has carved out a shaky niche of the miniatures market to sell their game- and to promote it, they’ve released countless novels set in the game’s kitchen-sink future-war setting.
Most of these books are absolutely interchangeable. Plunk down some grim-faced space marines with vaguely Latin sounding names, (Latin as in ‘Invictus,’ rather than ‘Fernando,’ but now I want to read a book about Battle-Commander Fernando), put them in front of a horde of space orks or alien bug monsters or mutants or whatever, and have them blast away for 300 pages or so. Not exactly high literature here. More like ‘marketing’ than anything.
The Ciaphas Cain novels, however, are an exception. They’re still not high literature, by any means, but they’re at least interesting enough that they’re the only 40k novels I’ll go out of my way to read.
This is Commissar Ciaphas Cain is an interesting character. See, instead of being some generic, battle-hungry space marine dude, Cain wants nothing to do with getting shot at. He’s got a more than healthy self-preservation instinct, seeing himself as a coward. The inconvenient thing is, as he runs away from one source of certain death, he typically winds up running towards something even worse, which serves to give him an inflated heroic reputation. If they ever made a Ciaphas Cain movie (which, sadly, they most assuredly won’t), he’d be best played by someone like John Barrowman or Hugh Jackman- a guy who looks appropriately heroic-ish, but still has serious comedic chops (also an accent).
It’s the same basic premise of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, which are quality literature, if I’m to be snobby about it. The Flashman Papers are one of my favorite series of novels, but I’ve already read them all.
So, I turn to the Cain novels as a bit of a substitute. They’re not as well written as Fraser’s work (and Cain is a much nicer character than Harry Flashman), but they’re still fun.
With that in mind, Duty Calls is a typical Cain novel. Cain and his regiment are sent to a planet in order to defend it from an invasion of man-eating space bugs, only to get caught up in an even darker conspiracy courtesy of Amberley Vail, a femme fatale space-spy. Cain fights and flees his way from one horrible encounter to the next, and finally escapes to fight another day (if by the skin of his teeth).
In this respect, the book is arguably as formulaic as any other 40k novel, just with a far more interesting formula. Formula or no, it’s the book’s style that really makes it worth reading. For one, the book is presented as Cain’s memoirs, so he gives an ongoing, snark-filled account of his various adventures. The other ‘gimmick’ is that Amberly is the one who’s editing these memoirs, so she puts in amusing little footnotes in from time to time. I love fiction with footnotes.
There are other silly, shameless gags worked in from time to time as well. For example, there’s a passing mention to giant lizard-beasts from the planet “Harihousen,” or when Cain mentions his old fencing instructor, Miyamato de Bergerac. Little digs like this here or there are reminders that this is a book written about a game that’s glorified toy soldiers. You shouldn’t take this seriously. Ironically, there’s only one ‘official’ Ciaphas Cain mini, a very limited edition release- and there aren’t any rules for the character, either. I suppose that’s for the best, as Ciaphas Cain is too fun of a character to be bogged down by mere game constraints.
Duty Calls is fairly accessible, despite being the fifth Cain novel. There are references to earlier books, and a cast of returning characters, but the plot’s straightforward enough. The biggest difficulty for a new reader would be the 40k setting itself- there are a lot of odd terms thrown around if you don’t know the game. Still, a brief glance-over a few wikipedia entries should give you a general idea what the difference between a Tyranid and a Sororitas is.
Ultimately, Duty Calls is a forgettable fluffball of a novel- but at least it’s a lot better paced than the doorstop-worthy Sword of Shannara. And since the Ciaphas Cain books are the only 40k novels I’ll bother reading, it’s pretty easy to headcanon them as the only truly objective account of the war-torn 41st Millenium. Everything else is just Imperial propaganda.