The Last Ditch by Sandy Mitchell Review [EJ Davies]


With the most recent release in Sandy Mitchell’s irreverent and tongue-in-cheek Ciaphas Cain novels still available in hardback, EJ takes time out to give it a once over, as the irrepressibly lucky Cain returns to duty with the Valhallan 597th en route to Nusquam Fundumentibus for the second time.

“Some great action set pieces, and the return of some loveable characters [and Jenit Sulla], make this a good read all round.” ~The Founding Fields.

The blurb:

“Imperial commissar Ciaphas Cain returns to Nusquam Fundumentibus to crush the ork attacks which have been plaguing the frozen planet. But when his ship crashes into the wastelands outside the capital it disturbs a far greater enemy, one which has lain dormant under the permafrost since long before the Imperium came to this world, and could now threaten the whole sector. Faced with ongoing greenskin raids and keeping an over-enthusiastic novice commissar under control, Cain must rally his men and confront whatever emerges from beneath the rapidly melting ice…”

This would be the second Cain novel I’ve read in recent weeks having taken some time away from the loveable rogue in favour of more pressing matters – such as the ongoing Heresy, the developments of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, and my new found fondness for Space Marines kicking butt in the most recent Space Marine Battles novels.  I’ve been lucky with the novels I’ve picked that the majority of the most recent ones have been jaw-droppingly awesome.  As such, I think I may have been a little spoiled.

After a daemon infects a servitor aboard the starship ferrying Cain, and the Valhallan 597th to Nusquam Fundumentibus – a flickering Gellar field allowing it aboard – causing a the ship to crash on the surface, and annoying several of the ork bands currently warring on the surface.  After surviving the regiment head for the major population centre – Primadelving – to undertake a mission to secure a generatorum that is set to overload and discover another enemy that requires the attention of Cain.

What follows are Cain’s adventures in trying to secure the easiest time of things as far away from the action as possible, whilst still presenting the image of the Emperor’s Hero.  As with all Sandy’s Cain novels so far it is teeming with knowing nods (and a few subtle ones) to popular culture.  In particular there is a very noticeable reference to The Italian Job (the original, not the US remake), some great scenes on board the starship between the fractious (and on the edge of mutinous) crew, along with Alien-like scenes in the tunnels beneath the surface of Nusquam Fundumendibus, and a scene reminiscent of the movie Tremors.  There are some lovely 40K versions of existing properties – in particular I liked the references to the Nusquam news sheets of The Diurnal Journal (Daily Journal) and The Solar (The Sun).  Some great characters get introduced – the rather pompous, zealous, and foolhardy Nusquam First Commissar, Forres; the Governor Clothhilde, wholly consumed with protecting her citizens and her home – and old favourites return in the shape of Major Broklaw, Colonel Kasteen, Captain Sulla, and Corporal Magot; and the unassuming, yet central Jurgen.

What I will say is that while the second enemy is not wholly unexpected, or unpredictable; I think I would have liked it to be.  There is much this novel shares with The Emperor’s Finest in this respect.  As a consequence there was a little sigh hanging over the novel for me.  The mainly action driven storyline does have a great number of set-pieces in it, and the encounters with both enemies are described in visceral detail, and with a great amount of inventiveness.  This being Cain’s narrative, we get little of the tactical battle surrounding him, and we – like him – tend to lurch from one encounter to the next.  While that, in and of itself, is how the fights appear to go, I wish that it wasn’t extended to the narrative as well.

To explain:  in previous novels, the story for Cain and his plucky band of followers has always been fairly straightforward, but the novel always had a sense that each of the individual scenes tied in to the whole story, that there was some reason for the encounters unfolding the way they do.  The Perlia incident, for example, stems from an Ork force pulling a starship from the warp, the consequent battle breaching the hull, and Cain escaping the the surface only to find Perlia teeming with orks, and a band of displaced peoples needing some leadership to get to safety.  The Last Ditch, and to a limited degree The Emperor’s Finest, although there is an overall setting, and I recognise it’s a developing warzone – but there really doesn’t feel to be a clear through-line tying everything together. It feels like the story is rumbling from one set piece to the next, with very little but Cain’s endless charisma to keep us interested.

I like Cain, and I like Sandy’s work, but this wasn’t a highpoint in the Cain archive for me, and with only a few out-loud chuckles, this didn’t rank as one of the funniest either.  There is plenty of scope to tell the following and the preceding stories, with an eye-opening (yet not unexpected) arrival towards the end of the book.  A little more work on the relationships between the characters, and perhaps a clearer narrative structure, this would have been a much better novel.

The verdict would be a good read with some great features and is certainly entertaining enough for fans of Cain.  The Last Ditch is available for download now from Black Library, and to purchase in hardback from all good bookstores.

EJ Davies

EJ Davies: reader, reviewer, writer; and an avid lover of Black LIbrary products since the release of the seminal Horus Rising. EJ is currently working through the massive back catalogue of Black Library titles, and plugging away at his own fiction-based efforts in the vain hope of cracking his way into the author pool.


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