Ciaphas Cain is a "Commissar," a political officer of the Imperium of Man's troops. Commissars are charged with maintaining the morale and loyalty of Imperial troops, an important matter when one considers the horrific odds and staggering casualties of the "grim dark future" of the WH40K setting. Despite holding no standard rank and being outside the chain of command, commisars have wide discretionary powers, including summary execution or even decimation, in pursuit of their duties. Cain, having observed the tendency of many members of the Commissariat to fall victim to "accidental" friendly fire, prefers to lead by example and encouragement instead of fear, and has gained a reputation for charismatic leadership, self-effacing heroism and concern for the common trooper. This has spiraled rather out of Cain's control, as he is now regarded as a "Hero of the Imperium", and is frequently assigned to dangerous and unusual circumstances. The truth, as presented in the novels, is that Cain is the sort of person he himself is supposed to execute: self-serving, incredibly paranoid, a truly skilled liar, and happy to put as many bodies between him and the enemy as possible in order to save his own skin. The author has stated that the character of Cain was inspired by both Harry Flashman and Edmund Blackadder.
It should be pointed out that Cain is an unreliable narrator. His memoirs are completely self-centered, containing nothing on the context of his adventures, forcing Vail to intersperse his narrative with secondary sources. Vail must also add occasional footnotes to some of his recollections to point out that Cain has just glossed over something another man might take pride in. For instance, Vail at one point praises Cain's marksmanship, pointing out that he had just made quite a remarkable long-range shot with an inaccurate pistol, while Cain himself writes onward without acknowledging (or possibly even being aware of) his own skill. Likewise, Cain views himself as a cowardly figure of little worth, often wondering why various enemy generals are so fixated on defeating him—leaving us completely ignorant (until Vail points it out) of the morale boost caused by the mere presence of a genuine "Hero of the Imperium", much less any acts of heroism that may be forthcoming. In the end, Vail's limited interjections indicate that she believes Cain is too hard on himself; in the foreword to "Fight or Flight", author Sandy Mitchell admitted that he himself is not sure if Cain is truly a coward, or a genuine hero with a massive inferiority complex or a case of impostor syndrome.
Even though Cain has always sought to find some safe, quiet post (it could be argued that is in fact all he has ever wanted), he is one of the most combat-experienced commissars in the Imperium. Some of his many notable exploits include being a liaison to Space Marine chapter which involved various first hand contact to Genestealers that killed various Terminators of The Reclaimers who were clearing a space hulk of Tyranids; visiting and surviving two different Necron tombs; fighting and bringing together the scattered PDF from a world and then driving off the Orks, and escaping on a Dark Eldar slave ship. He frequently refers to such experiences as invaluable as they taught him to fight (or more frequently, run away from) the enemies of the Imperium. Inquisitor Vail believes (albeit with a certain amount of irony) that it is precisely this quality that has made him such an effective leader and agent of the Imperium. He is aided in these exploits by his martial skill, which is quite significant, as demonstrated by his ability to temporarily stalemate a Chaos Space Marine in melee with his chainsword. Vail's footnotes in the second novel indicated Cain was probably one of the finest swordsmen in his region of the galaxy.
Cain maintains his reputation of heroism primarily for its benefit to him; most soldiers around him obey his orders without question, and he is constantly invited to parties and upscale social functions. It is, strangely, aided by his habits of self-preservation; in seeking out the last place the enemy is likely to be, he frequently wanders into the exact place they're pulling off the most secret or critical part of their schemes. Of course, this habit has become so ingrained in his and the public's conscious that everyone expects him to volunteer for whatever particularly dangerous duty has just come along. He is also humanitarian in his dealings with Imperial Guardsmen. Cain does not do this out of altruism, but rather because soldiers who like him are more likely to willingly fight for or protect him and/or less likely to shoot him from behind. Cain notes that he has tried to teach commissar cadets this alternative style of morale-boosting, with only marginal success.
Cain's past is shrouded in mystery. Vail's footnotes indicate that, despite her research into the subject, she could find no official documentation on where he was born or what his childhood was like. However, from his writings, it can be inferred that he was raised on a hive world and his parents both served in the Imperial Guard. The situation is exacerbated by his habitual lying; so accomplished a dissembler is he that even nearby telepaths felt no urge to distrust him when he lied in their presence. He has become so good at lying that he is sometimes unsure of where the lies stop and the actual Ciaphas Cain begins, and it is possible that no one ever truly knew him. The closest to doing so would probably be Amberley Vail, not only due to her stewardship of his memoirs but through over a century of both professional and romantic entanglement.
According to Vail's footnotes, Cain retired from service (something very few people live long enough to do in WH40K) and took up service at a military academy on Perlia, where he trained potential Commissars, participated in the Thirteenth Black Crusade, and published an official biography: To Serve the Emperor: A Commissar's Life. Passing away of natural causes, he was buried with full military honours—though, due to the many false allegations of his death, there is a standing order that Cain remain listed on active duty at all times, which has not been revoked even though he is documentably dead and interred. The much longer and more self-critical "Cain Archive," from whence Inquisitor Vail publishes her accounts, were unorganized at the time of his death; for instance, Vail makes reference to having had to assemble at least one volume (Cain's Last Stand) by stitching together several vignettes scattered throughout the document. Vail's introductions to each excerpt indicate that she is circulating them amongst fellow members of the Inquisition, with a strong caution not to make them available for public consumption so as to leave Cain's legacy untarnished.
It should be noted that the series has many similarities with the Flashman series of books by George MacDonald Fraser, in both style and content. Though of course with a marked change in setting and the fact that Cain is considerably less despicable.
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