I rarely cry. It is usually at the end of a war movie where a person has given his or her life for the good of the squad and bagpipes are playing. Like at the end of "Gunga Din" or "Wee Willie Winkie," or even "Saving Private Ryan," although there were sadly no pipes.
While reading Steve Parker's first military science fiction novel, Rebel Winter, I found myself tearing up several times. Each time a well-drawn character sacrifices himself for the unit or a group of men die in a burning Chimera or a beloved colonel runs pell-mell into a mass of orks I felt a tear rolling down my cheek. Consequently, I have to say early in this review that the writing is damn good, the characters are well-drawn, the battle scenes are intense, and Parker's knowledge of Warhammer 40,000 fluff is dead-on accurate.
The novel involves a regiment of Vostroyan Firstborn fighting both rebels and orks on the ice-crusted planet Danik's World. The Vostroyans are similar to Russian Cossacks and their culture is tribal and militaristic. According to their laws, every firstborn son of every household serves in the Vostroyan regiments. Vostroyan soldiers and officers maintain an archaic appearance and their history can be traced back to the Horus Heresy. They pass their weapons down from firstborn to firstborn and are usually worth more than the guardsmen who carry them. They serve ten-year terms but most re-enlist because their persona is based on their identification with the regiment and the company in the regiment in which they serve.
In Rebel Winter Parker plays with the Vostroyan "fluff." First, the Vostroyan leadership is picked from the nobility. Our protagonist Captain Grigorius Sebastev is not a noble; instead, he is a sergeant, elevated to leadership on the battlefield. Second, Vostroyans pick the first-born son to serve the Emperor; Stavin, another important character, possesses a secret, which haunts him: he is a second-born son. Third, the Vostroyans are a close-knit tribal unit. The Commissar of Fifth Company is not a Vostroyan but from Delta Radhima. He is dark and tall and obviously a foil for the short and stocky Sebastev.
Parker begins the novel with a framing device: Captain Sebastev is on trial in the Exedra Udiciarum Seddisvarr for some unspecified crime. The story, then, is a remembering rather than an unfolding. In my opinion, a framing device is a two-edged sword. It either creates suspense by engaging the reader with the question: why is this man on trial, or it dissipates suspense because the reader knows the protagonist will survive. In this novel, the framing device accomplishes three things: one, it is simply a sketch and does not explain who any of the bizarre characters in the courtroom are; therefore, it creates an element of suspense and expectation; two, it begs the question of why this captain is on trial; and, three, at the end of the novel it provides the springboard for a sequel (which I suspect is its primary purpose).
Once, we enter the "remembering," we are plunged head-first into the action. The Vostroyans are fighting a battle of attrition against both rebels and orks. Here is where Parker shines. The battle scenes are brutal and beautifully constructed. Very rarely is an author able to manipulate a squad, let alone a company, and Parker does it well and efficiently. Something else that he does well is to describe the strategic elements of a battle. I particularly appreciate the map at the beginning of the book. By referring to it during the reading I was able to see and understand both the strategic and tactical decisions made by the combatants.
In conclusion, I found the novel a brilliant first effort. I enjoyed the mixture of pathos and bravura in the characters and when I say characters I mean many characters, each one is well-drawn and memorable. I have two minor criticisms though: one, the framing device distracts from the strength of the plot and, two, in an attempt to fully handle his "company" of characters, Mr. Parker switches point of view several times, which I found disturbed the smooth progression of the narrative. In that regard,I prefer either a single or at most a double point of view.
As a final word, I would recommend this novel to both Warhammer fans and military science fiction readers. I think Steve Parker now shares the stage with other great military science-fiction writers like Dan Abnett, Andy Remic, Paul Kearney, Chris Roberson, and Steven Pressfield.
I am looking forward to reviewing his latest novel--Gunheads.