Book Review: Sandy Mitchell’s The Emperor’s Finest

Oh-kay! Back into the swing of things.

Apart from my occasional musings on the Hugos, I try to keep this blog mostly apolitical, so I’m not gonna delve into the obligatory “what the fuck, America?” kind of post. Instead, I shall press on and review another book. A book about a self-admitted fraud with an overly inflated reputation that’s earned him a position of some authority in a hellish sci-fi dystopia!

I might be stretching a little bit for topical relevance.

In any case, The Emperor’s Finest is a Ciaphas Cain novel, a series I’ve been a fan of for quite some time now. They’re rollicking sci-fi adventures that basically boil down to “Flashman IN SPAAAACE!” But again, Cain is a far better person than ol’ Flashy (which isn’t saying much, but still). And again, the Cain novels are set in the grimdark “in the far future there is only war” setting of Warhammer 40k. Which in turn makes it even funnier, as while everyone else is going on about heretics and invasions and what have you, Cain just wants to be left alone and in one piece. I’ve long since decided that the Cain novels and the absolutely hilarious chronicles of The All Guardsmen Party are the only bits of 40k lore that are actually true, while everything else is just propaganda.


Cain’s the one in the hat.

In The Emperor’s Finest, Cain winds up attached to a chapter of Space Marines (the big dudes behind Cain on the cover), Games Workshop’s poster-product. I was a little leery of this at first, given how pretty much every other 40k novel is about one chapter of the Space Marines or another, but thankfully the big guys don’t hog the spotlight. They’re big and killy and impressive, sure, but Cain mostly dwells on this in being thankful for having someone big and killy and impressive to hide behind.

The plot plays out like any other Cain novel: due to Cain’s advanced reputation, he gets thrown into a horribly dangerous situation (in this case, exploring an enormous derelict spaceship that’s infested with greebly insect monsters with mind control powers), only to find that it’s even worse than he expected. Fleeing and shooting and other adventuring ensues. These novels aren’t exactly deep, folks.

This said, The Emperor’s Finest throws another wrench into the works. During his adventuring, Cain happens to impress an aristocratic woman (not a space princess so much as a space duchess, I guess?) by the name of Mira. This seems to go fine at first, until Mira decides it’d be a great idea to marry Cain and drag him back to her home planet to be her consort. Which sounds fun, until Cain realizes that doing so could be dubbed as desertion, earning him a quick date with a firing squad.

Given how much the Cain novels owe to the Flashman books, I’m kind of surprised Mitchell hasn’t delved into romantic subplots before. Then again, 40k is a setting more interested in chainsaw swords and slavering monsters than lovey-dovey stuff. The Emperor’s Finest is hardly a romance, either, as a good deal of the action centers on Cain wanting to get away from Mira. It’s still ripe for comedy, however, as Mitchell alludes to Cain and Mira going at it like rabbits throughout the story. For example, a quote:

“The only bright side to the whole sorry mess was that Mira was so impressed with my apparent heroism she insisted on spending the few remaining hours before my departure in a protracted and strenuous farewell, which came close to making my eminent demise seem almost worth it.”

(Page 277).

Again, it’s nothing explicit, but it’s still not something I’d expect from a 40k novel. Adding to the meta-ness is the fact that the Cain novels are “edited” by Inquisitor Amberly Vail, Cain’s primary romantic interest … but she seems fairly professional in dealing with Cain’s ‘exploits’ with Mira. I guess I was hoping for the occasional wry and catty dig at Mira in the footnotes, but Vail doesn’t get too many digs in.

Thankfully, The Emperor’s Finest has plenty of other gags to go around. Both from the ridiculousness of the situation, Cain’s own sarcastic narration, and (in some of my favorites), shameless little puns tossed in here and there. For example, Cain makes reference to a swashbuckling spaceship captain named Horatio Bugler. Or, in one of my favorites, Cain mentions an adventure he had somewhere called Reikenbach– there was a waterfall involved, of course. Or, in perhaps the most shameless gag of the whole book, there’s passing reference to a work called “Soylens Viridiens for the Machine Spirit.”

As you can gather from those gags, The Emperor’s Finest doesn’t try to be anything but a silly, fluffy adventure. However, it does this very well. I’d even recommend this one to people who aren’t really Warhammer 40k fans (but are still fans of adventure-y science fiction). And, lucky me, there are still a couple of Cain novels I haven’t read yet, so you can expect more reviews to come sometime later down the pike. Lucky you!



  1. Translithopede

    I’ve turned down offers to have the Cain series read to me (not ‘gritty’ enough for me to ‘dig’ or sink my ‘teeth’ into), but I enjoy seeing how well-read you are in the genre to recognize the similarities between the rollicking space adventures. 🙂

    • Funny you mention that, as the lack of grimdark grittiness is exactly why I love the Cain books, and steer clear of most other 40k novels. 🙂

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