Lore Explainer: Ciaphas Cain

If Gaunt’s Ghosts is Sharpe in the 40k universe, then Ciaphas Cain is definitely Flashman.
Oh? You don’t know who that is? Well then, I suppose we need a little mini-explainer on who Flashman is.

The character of Flashman originates from the classic Victoriana novel Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, the ur-candidate for the now-exhausted public (private for our US readers) school japes story. Flashman is the bully, he’s exactly the kind of dickhead you’d imagine a public school bully to be, Draco Malfoy if he went to Rugby. The character eventually gets expelled from the school (and the story) for being a pisshead and disappears. Fast forward from 1857 to 1969 and a fella named George MacDonald Fraser had the idea that it would be fun to write a comic novel (meaning, funny, rather than like.. y’know, comics) around the conceit of the secret diaries of this character’s post-school-expulsion life being discovered and compiled by the author (that’s called Pseudepigrapha!) and as such, they’re all written in the first person past-tense. Through these diaries we learn that Flashman is a complete coward and an exceptional blagger who, through a massive dose of luck and a bit of cunning, somehow ends each story being lauded as a hero for his participation in whatever tale of derring-do he found himself involved in.
(Fun little note, Flashman ends up receiving the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy, despite being a coward. Like I say, they’re funny.)

Wait, why am I talking about the protagonist of some Victorian Imperial-pastiche novels from the 70s? Isn’t this article supposed to be about Ciaphas Cain?

Well… the Ciaphas Cain stories are somewhat Pratchett-esque comic novels (yes, really. They’re 40k stories that are funny. A minor miracle in itself.) written by Sandy Mitchell, structured as the memoirs of Hero of the Imperium Commissar Ciaphas Cain, compiled by his associate, and potential definite lover, Ordo Xenos Inquisitor Amberley Vail. Through these memoirs we learn that Ciaphas Cain is a complete coward and exceptional blagger who, through a massive dose of luck and a good deal of cunning somehow ends each story being lauded anew as a Hero of the Imperium for his participation in whatever tale of derring-do he found himself involved in.

Do you see what I’m getting at? I mean, you should, that description is basically the same text with some words swapped out. Now, to be fair, there are definitely differences in the characterisation of each of these men. Flashman is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete twat, with very little to redeem him, whereas Ciaphas Cain falls much more squarely in the lovable-rogue camp and it’s easy to see why the other characters in the story (that don’t have access to what’s going on inside his head) would think that he’s a peerless Hero of the Imperium. His skill at masking his terror is so well refined that he becomes calm, collected, effortlessly charming, and really likeable – anyone with an anxiety disorder will tell you that casual acquaintances are often surprised to learn that they suffer with anxiety, because their facade is so well developed that the seem like the calmest people they know (anecdotally, I’ve heard this about myself many times). To put it in terms that nerds can easily understand, he’s got a maxed Charisma stat and he keeps rolling natural 20s. He also happens to be an exceptional swordsman, a trait that comes in handy very very often. 

“Some of my fellow inquisitors may be shocked to discover that one of the Imperium’s most venerated heroes was, by his own admission, a scoundrel and a self-seeking rogue; a fact of which, due to our sporadic personal association, I have long been aware. Indeed, I would go so far as to contend that it was this very combination of character flaws which made him one of the most effective servants the Imperium has ever had, despite his strenuous efforts to the contrary. For, in his century or more of active service to the Commissariat, and occasional less visible activities at my behest, he faced and bested almost every enemy of humanity: necrons, tau, tyranids and orks, eldar, both free of taint and corrupted by the ruinous powers, and the daemonic agents of those powers themselves. Reluctantly, it must be admitted, but in many cases repeatedly, and always with success; a record few, if any, more noble men can equal.” – Inquisitor Amberley Vail’s introduction to her compilation of Cain’s memoirs. 

Ciaphas Cain

Hero of the Imperium Ciaphas Cain: Credit -Warhammer Community

“‘Come on, men! Do you want to live forever!’ The noncom in charge of the squad must have been on something, I thought. Nobody spoke like that outside of badly-written combat novels.” – Commissar Ciaphas Cain

The man, the myth, the legend. Commissar Ciaphas Cain is the protagonist and main point of view character in his series (shocking, right?) and it’s through his recollections that each of the stories is told. Orphaned on a Hive World as a child, Cain is taken to a Schola Progenium (which is kind of like a 40k boarding school, right?) wherein he is trained to become a Commissar, although his test scores are thoroughly average, he only really excels in sports and fencing. Later, as a full-fledged member of the Commissariat, Cain is sent to a Valhallan Artillery regiment, an assignment with which a more heroically inclined Commissar might be disappointed, but not Cain. Artillery, you see, are often pretty far away from the thick of it, a fact that appeals greatly to his extremely keen sense of self-preservation. Unfortunately, as Cain prepares for a comfortable career of “rear-echelon obscurity”, heroism comes a-calling as the ship carrying his regiment comes under attack shortly after their arrival in the system. Cain and his attendant Jurgen hop in an escape pod, and after a period of drifting in space, crash-land on the Ork-ravaged world of Perlia. Primarily concerned with not dying, Cain and Jurgen nick an Ork Warbuggy and head in the direction of safety. Long story short, they end up reluctantly leading a band of refugees across the planet, encountering and dispatching Orks as they go, ultimately ending with Cain personally blowing away the Ork Warboss with his laspistol, birthing the legend of the heroic Ciaphas Cain. 

After a period of being a sort of peripatetic roving Commissar, Cain is attached to the newly created Valhallan 301/296th, a regiment formed through the consolidation of the Valhallan 301st and 296th, both of which had suffered more than 50% casualties in previous engagements. There was… more than a little friction between the remnants of these regiments, as the 301st was all-male and specialised as grizzled shock troopers, whereas the 296th was all-female and specialised in rear-echelon HQ defence. Matters were made worse when command of the new regiment was handed to newly-promoted Colonel Regina Kasteen by virtue of three days seniority over the leader of the 301st, Ruput Broklaw. As soon as the regiments are amalgamated, discipline immediately goes into the toilet and after a fracas in the ship’s canteen involving the use of regimental crockery leaves several troopers dead, Cain is forced to intervene, using his charisma and cunning to avoid actually having to shoot anyone, thus preventing the extremely shaky regimental morale from shattering again. Smart. After the deadly dinner disaster, Cain resolves to reform the regiment and rechristens it as the 597th, commanding that it be fully integrated down to the squad level to allow for bonding between troopers. These reforms pay off and the regiment becomes a model of regimental harmony and efficiency. 

Amberley Vail

Amberley Vail is an inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos who becomes an acquaintance of Cain’s during the incident on Gravalax and is perhaps the person in the galaxy who knows him best. During the course of their relationship, it’s strongly implied that they become lovers, and indeed it’s Amberley who compiles and edits Cain’s memoirs into their published form (ostensibly for the entertainment of members of the Inquisition). She often provides wry commentary in the form of footnotes – even in stories where she does not feature directly as a character, either due to her absence or because Cain hadn’t met her yet.*
Amberley is described as a beautiful young woman, although given how liberally the Inquisition makes use of rejuvenat treatments (Cain himself lives to be at least 200 years old, and she certainly outlives him) and cosmetic enhancements it’s pretty difficult to pin down exactly how old she is. Cain describes her as cheerful, easygoing, and sarcastic, making her precisely the opposite of the stereotypical image of an inquisitor, indeed, Amberley confirms via footnotes that this deception is precisely the point – people do not expect a charming young woman to be an inquisitor traveling incognito. She really seems to particularly enjoy playing dress-up, adopting a number of convincing disguises throughout the series. Cain wonders to himself whether she’d do it anyway, mission or not. As an Inquisitor, her authority vastly outstrips Cain’s, meaning that although the officers of the Astra Militarum can’t order him around, she certainly can. Given her inquisitorial status it’s also no surprise that she’s outfitted with all sorts of hi-tech gizmos, including a Warp-Capable personal yacht, concealed digital weaponry (for times when subtlety is required), a suit of golden power armour (for when subtlety is not required), and an individual displacement device.*

*One particularly funny moment in For The Emperor involves Amberley diving for a gun at the precise moment a shot is fired, since the shot would have hit her, the personal displacement device shunts her a few feet to the other side of the wall. Since the displacement device preserves momentum and direction, this causes her to crash into a table. As Amberley comments in her footnotes: “The displacer field, as those of you who’ve used one can no doubt attest, will readily teleport you out of immediate danger. Unfortunately, you rematerialise moving at the same speed and in the same direction as when the field activates, and, as Cain points out, I was diving for a gun on the floor at the time. And it was a stupid place to put a table in any case.” 


Gunner Ferik Jurgen as he appears on the cover of Caves of Ice

Gunner Ferik Jürgen is Cain’s personal adjutant, driver, dogsbody, and his one constant companion throughout the series. Jürgen is, to put it bluntly, extremely repulsive to everyone except Cain. He stinks and is filthy, with brown teeth and a ratty beard, he openly makes use of pornography and is generally deeply off-putting. He’s Private Baldrick, basically. Eschewing the typical guardsman’s lasgun Jürgen prefers to tote a meltagun, which saves Cain perhaps a little too often throughout the series. 

When the pair meet Amberley’s retinue her pet psyker Rakel freaks out so much that the inquisitor wonders if there’s perhaps more to the repugnant aide than meets the eye (and nose). Her intuition proves to be correct when Jurgen’s presence disrupts the hive mind of a newly discovered Genestealer Cult, enabling the heroes to deal with them before they get out of hand. She deduces therefore that Jurgen is a Blank, an extremely rare kind of human mutant with no presence in the warp, capable of interfering with the abilities of all psychic and warp entities, and inspiring instinctive revulsion in regular humanity. Following this discovery, Amberley decides that it would be best to keep Cain on speed dial just in case. Cain notes that although they certainly enjoy one another’s company, he’s under no illusion about the fact that Jurgen’s ability is her primary reason for this association. She decides that Jurgen should remain with Cain rather than becoming one of her crew as Blanks by themselves don’t tend to live very long (because other Humans can’t help but hate them and often end up driven to killing them), and Jürgens association with Cain keeps him alive and therefore useful. She probably doesn’t want to be around his odour on her warp-yacht either. 

Regina Kasteen

Colonel Regina Kasteen is the ranking officer and commander of the Valhallan 597th infantry, a position she initially holds as the highest ranking survivor of the devastated all-female Valhallan 296th. Following the merger of the severely understrength regiments she is awarded command on a technicality over her counterpart, Major Ruput Broklaw, by virtue of being three days his senior. He is vastly more experienced in combat: his previous regiment was one of shock troopers while hers one of rear-echelon HQ guards. Despite her youth and inexperience Kasteen proves to be a highly capable regimental commander and successfully directs various pivotal actions undertaken by the 597th, eventually winning over Major Broklaw and becoming collegiate and even friendly. She is described as a young redhead, often wearing her hair in a long plait. Personality-wise, her tolerance for the Imperial bureaucracy is extremely low, and her humour blunt and laconic, both traits which win her further approval from Cain. One particular example can be found in the novel Caves of Ice – Amberley splices in the Scrivener-written minutes of a meeting chaired by Kasteen, during which she suggests mining the route of an approaching Ork Gargant in order to prevent it from reaching the Promethium Refinery on Simia Orichalcae:
“Codicier Pryke raised the point that a significant credit value was attached to this installation, and that its destruction would result in a 0.017 per cent fluctuation in the mean commerce averages of the sector. She went on to suggest that an alternative strategy should be found. Colonel Kasteen said she was welcome to go outside and ask the orks to go away if she thought that would help.”

Jenit Sulla

Lieutenant Jenit Sulla is the Quartermaster of the 597th, she is extremely enthusiastic and rather reckless. Cain often internally compares her to a horse both in manner and appearance, and notes that while she is diligent in her role as quartermaster her tactical skill in command leaves a lot to be desired – her primary tactic is to command wild bloodthirsty charges regardless of whether such an approach is appropriate. Somehow this method always seems to pay off, a fact which baffles both Cain and Amberley.

In spite of Cain’s rather low opinion of her, Sulla goes on to greatness, becoming the Imperium’s first Lady General and a hero in her own right, and it’s clear that she has a huge amount of hero-worship for Cain, even describing him as her mentor, she is completely oblivious to his apparent distaste toward her. Because the narrative in Cain’s memoirs is exclusively delivered in his limited first person perspective, Amberley will often splice in passages from Sulla’s memoirs –  Like a Phoenix From the Flames: The Founding of the 597th to provide broader context to the overall picture. She does this with extreme reluctance owing to the abysmal quality of Sulla’s prose, frequently apologising like so:

Despite my misgivings about the style, or, more accurately lack of it, I feel it would be helpful to insert the only eyewitness account of the mobilisation of the 597th I’ve been able to locate at this point. Readers with a refined appreciation for the Gothic language may prefer to skip this section. For those of you who wish to persevere, my apologies.

The Sulla passages are stuffed with prose so purple it’d make a blueberry blush, and often go into excruciating detail on minor and inconsequential action, in that regard you miiight say that they’re the author taking a friendly jab at the writing of the fluff content in the 40k Codices. By way of an example, here’s a passage in which she describes… Getting out of a Chimera and shooting at some guys.

“Calling on my troopers to follow me, and taking but a moment to switch the command channels to the combead in my ear, I jumped from the rear ramp, eager to join the fray. The sight which met my eyes was to give me pause. The elegant buildings and thoroughfares through which we’d driven were no more, their places taken by heaps of rubble through which barely recognisable pieces of their original form could still, in places, be discerned. A thick pall of dust and smoke hung over everything, reducing the bright afternoon sun to a sullen grey, and for a moment, I couldn’t still the flicker of regret which rose unbidden in my breast. Even tainted by the alien as it had been, the architecture had been undeniably elegant.

I had little time for reflection, however, as the crack of las-fire reminded me forcefully of the dire peril my soldiers were in, and with a cry of ‘For the Emperor!’ I led my doughty quartet to the rescue. A quick study of the tactical slate in the Chimera had shown me that I had an unengaged squad sufficiently close to the most distant of the enemy positions to flank it with a high probability of success, and after a few terse instructions to the sergeant leading it, this indeed was to prove to be the case. That left the nearest to us. 

We took them completely by surprise, a couple of frag rounds from our grenade launcher bursting among them and causing great dismay, before charging home to dispatch the survivors with pistols and chainsword. Cowards all, as those who oppose the Emperor invariably are, they broke and ran, exposing themselves to the vengeful fire of the squad they’d been pinning down, who were only too keen to even the score.

I’m proud to say that of the team under my direct command only one man was wounded, taking a las-bolt to the leg as we charged, while none of the traitors escaped alive.”

Emperor bless you, Jenit Sulla.

So there you have it, the Ciaphas Cain stories are a refreshing part of the 40k canon, a welcome palate cleanser in between the grindingly hard-nosed stories of slaughter and misery, and conclusively proving that it is actually possible to write funny stories in such a depressing and miserable setting. If you like comic novels, and Pratchett in particular, you should definitely give them a look.

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