The Imperial Guard: Rebel Winter/The Citadel (Steve Parker)
Rebel Winter is the third and final novel in the first volume of the Imperial Guard omnibus. Featuring yet another distinct regiment, the Russian-inspired Vostroyan Firstborn, the book is a thoroughly entertaining affair with plenty of imaginative fight scenes and heroic sacrifices to keep things interesting. Additionally, the book has surprisingly strong characterization, and the simple yet effective premise helps make Rebel Winter a perfect way to close out the omnibus.
After a short prologue, we are thrown into the thick of the fighting on the planet known as Danik's World. The Imperial forces find themselves under constant duress from the native rebel forces and the encroaching orks, eager as ever for a fight. After yet another devastating defeat, the men of 5th company, including Captain Sebastev and Colonel Kabanov, are assigned to hold out to the bitter end in the remains of their base. The decision is more politically charged than tactically sound, and after defying orders and barely escaping with their lives, 5th company finds themselves behind enemy lines, with their only salvation being the last bridge open to the Imperial HQ.
Luckily, they find their ticket home in a captured rebel officer that is valuable enough for the higher ups to risk another unit to defend the bridge while 5th company begins their hectic trek to get back to the friendly lines. The premise lends a great sense of urgency to the book, and the ever dwindling ranks of 5th company prove their worth by trudging their way through one firefight after another, an endeavor punctuated by several awe-inspiring acts of heroism. The plot isn't the most complicated affair in the world, with little in the way of sub plots with the exception of each main character's struggle to redeem themselves or earn acceptance, but with just the right sense of urgency and a great knack for pacing, the book is an excellent example of Warhammer 40k done right.
Characters in Rebel Winter are the usual mix of military types, but the author cleverly puts many of them in some kind of underdog or outcast role, and the more conventional characters are given precisely defined personalities that help to add weight to their heroic sacrifices. Many of the characters in Rebel Winter are about defying tradition. Out lead, Sebastev, is one of the few Captains to earn his position through merit instead of birthright. 5th Company's Commissar, Karif, is an outsider and has to instantly prove himself to the men around him. Kabanov, the group's defacto leader, is looked down upon by higher command for the unusual amount of compassion he shows for his soldiers, but is beloved by the men under his command. Additionally, he is suffering from a debilitating illness that causes him to doubt his own competency and question his mortality. Karif's aide Sabin is a second born son who took the place of his older brother in order to keep him out of the service. Each of these characters is an underdog in a relatable struggle, trying to prove themselves to others or do what they think is right in a universe torn to pieces by war. Additionally, we see things through several sets of eyes for most of the story, which helps to flesh out these strong characters and vary the narrative a bit.
The supporting cast involves some members of higher command, who are shown to be callous and somewhat incompetent as leaders, and the one note but surprisingly effective support men in 5th company including a fanatical priest and mysterious enginseer. These two, along with a handful of others, aren't the most human characters in the book, but they are precisely imagined and sympathetic in their own ways. The closest thing we get to a true antagonist is the vaguely characterized prisoner, who works more as a plot device than a character, but for the most part characterization is a triumphant element in this book.
Prose in Rebel Winter isn't exactly stellar, but it does get the point across. Comparison of the Vostroyan Firstborns to Russian Cossacks are fairly obvious, but not nearly as over the top as some of the other themed groups in 40k, like the Space Wolves-Vikings connection. Character names are almost always Russian based, and the attire and dialogue fits the theme quite nicely. The setting of Danik's World, with its brutal cold and harsh winters, is the perfect setting for such warriors, though the cold rarely has an actual impact on the plot. The dialogue does a great job of carefully mixing grim humor with the kind of camaraderie that is expected with leaders like Sebastev and Kabanov in command. In particular, the commissar's interactions with otherwise faceless grunts does a great job of both humanizing the random foot solider and outlining the strange combination of faith, duty, and brotherhood that many characters in the 40k universe seem to use as motivation.
The most crucial element to nearly every Warhammer 40k book, the action sequences, are actually better plotted than they are depicted. One of the biggest flaws is that the various brave and heroic sacrifices are rarely seen from the eyes of the hero and more often observed by one of the men around him. This removes some amount of the resonance from these otherwise fantastic scenes, and robs us of a chance to experience what motivated the character to take one for the team. Additionally, the antagonists, particularly the orks, fold a bit too swiftly for my tastes. For a hardy, battle ready faction like the orks to be decimated so easily by the Imperial Guard is something that just doesn't fit. It makes for some cool scenes, but it doesn't help the plausibility of the story any. Overall though, it is a dry and impersonal style that focuses a bit too heavily on the big picture, even while drawing up several heroic moments that are let down a bit by the pedestrian writing.
The accompanying short story, The Citadel, is an action packed vignette that explores the relationship between Kabanov and fellow noble (and bit player in the events of Rebel Winter) Vlastan in their early days. Though most of it takes place 51 years prior to the events of Rebel Winter, this story is actually set after the novel, and as a result the revelations we discover about both characters feel a bit less important than they probably would have if this was a lead in story. Despite the unfavorable placement, this short does manage to show the roots of both characters, while also providing a harrowing siege battle to enjoy. By no means an essential companion to Rebel Winter, The Citadel is nevertheless a worthy supplement to the main story.
Rebel Winter is certainly similar to its predecessor (in the omnibus at least) Death World, with its regiment of Imperial Guardsmen being perfectly suited for the environs they are matched against. However, with the increased sense of urgency, craftily developed cast of characters, and well plotted fights, Rebel Winter manages to distinguish itself as a standout Warhammer 40k novel and the premier piece in the collection it appears in.