The Last Ditch by Sandy Mitchell is the eighth novel in Black Library's Ciaphas Cain series. For those unfamiliar with the series, it is about a ostensibly cowardly commissar (political officer) assigned to a mixed-gender unit of the Imperial Guard. Set in the Warhammer 40K universe, it follows Commissar Cain as he recounts his biography and how he went from being a lowly junior officer to one of the greatest heroes of the Imperium. The joke being that Ciaphas Cain considers himself to be nothing of the sort due to the fact that most of his victories come from either blind luck or due to exercising his well-honed instinct for self-preservation.
I'm a fan of the series, enjoying it in its entirety. Unfortunately, the formula is something I'm not sure will stand up indefinitely. The Last Ditch feels like a retread, repeating the same basic story arc of a number of previous books. Ciaphas Cain goes to a planet that's imperiled, finds an unexpected threat, manages to deal with it, deals with an obstructive bureaucracy. I'm sorry to say that I didn't really enjoy it. It's more or less a retelling of Caves of Ice, even ending the same way, which seriously undermines my enjoyment factor.
It's not that I expect epic character arcs, Ciaphas Cain is a static character by nature since we know he remains a arguable coward for the entirety of his life. It's just I expect the author to try to come up with a new story. Unfortunately, he didn't, and the story is problematic to review. If it continues to simply rehash old stories, however, I may have to ditch it. Well, that's probably unfair. Ciaphas Cain is a series I will continue to purchase the remainder of, especially since it has credibility to burn with me. I loved the original seven books and only occasionally thought they were repeating the same formula. I mean, it took me until Fate of the Jedi to realize the Star Wars Expanded Universe had burned every last bit of goodwill it had with me.
The basic conceit of the story is still there and enjoyable. Ciaphas Cain is a man who is utterly insincere with all the people around him who believe he's a ridiculously talented warrior. In fact, Ciaphas Cain is simply practical and takes time to figure out how he's going to get out of any situation he gets into. In the setting of Warhammer 40K, where everyone is a religious fanatic for the God Emperor of Mankind, this makes him a military genius. It's also hilarious to see how he keeps getting into trouble no matter how hard he tries to stay out of it.
I'm also a fan of Ciaphas Cain's editor, Amberley Vale, who is also an Inquisitor of the Imperium. Amberley is Ciaphas Cain's infrequent love interest and the editor of his books. Amberly annotates the entirety of the novel and they're usually hilarious, filling in details about the Warhammer 40K universe or satirizing pop culture at equal turns. It's hard to say which of the two is snarkier and those are qualities I like in my protagonists. All of this remains true in The Last Ditch, though the humor isn't quite as sharp as it usually is.
Really, though I think my favorite character is probably Kasteen. She's one of the rare action girls in the Warhammer 40K universe since we rarely get to see the Sisters of Battle. Kasteen is a no-nonsense soldier who backs up Ciaphas Cain no matter what his decision and a romance never develops. That's practically unprecedented in the fiction I read, I'm shocked. She too, gets to do some impressive things in the story.
Unfortunately, that's about it. The new character of Commissar Florres makes a bunch of mistakes but doesn't really serve as anything like a rival to Commissar Cain. Mostly, she just seems to annoy him a couple of times before the plot is unceremoniously resolved. The antagonists, themselves, are completely mindless so there's no real villain. Since we don't care about any of the new characters, know Commissar Cain will live to write his memoirs, and the planet is undeveloped - I can't say the book has much in the way of tension.
In short, I didn't like it. Take it for what it's worth.