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Marston Moor

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History is replete with ‘turning-point’ battles. Alesia saw the effective end of Gaul against Caesar. Senlac Hill saw the beginning of Norman England. Borodino changed the fortunes of Napoleon. Marathon halted the Persian invasion of Greece. And as often as not, they are almost accidents. Gettysburg occurred when two armies happened to bump into each other, more or less. Marston Moor is one of those battles. Basically, I’m not going to tell you why. If you don’t know the details of the battle of Marston Moor, then you are at an advantage reading the book, so please do keep yourself in the dark. Because I do know the history and the result. And yet as I read, I found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping to see things that I knew couldn’t possibly happen in historical fiction. This, I would say, is one mark of a good writer with an absorbing series – you become so invested in the characters that you want to see things turn out in ways you know they cannot.

Phew, this is going to be a tough review without throwing out spoilers. Suffice it to say that Marston Moor is a great, crucial and extremely bloodthirsty battle, so you know before you open the book that there’s going to be a great deal of mayhem and death – and heroism, of course, and treachery, and all the Mike Arnold factors. But essentially, with such a battle, be prepared for that.

I noticed what I perceived to be several shifts in the series in this book, and in Arnold’s writing of the series. Firstly, the focus in the series has always been on the main character – Stryker – for obvious reasons. In more recent books, Forrester has had his times in the limelight too. But until now the enemy have only been seen in glimpses that are pertinent to the flow of the story. In Marston Moor, we are introduced to the great enemy – the Parliamentarians – on a fairly personal level. We meet several of their commanders, both good and bad. We meet Cromwell – very well portrayed, by the way. Strangely likeable and dislikeable at the same time. And we meet one of my personal heroes of British history: Sir Thomas Fairfax. As a Yorkshireman, Black Tom is my chosen man from the civil war. As a staunch Royalist myself, I’ve always thrown my lot in with their camp in civil war stories. And yet Black Tom Fairfax, a parliamentarian, is one of those powerful characters. Anyway, enough ranting on that. Arnold, then, has begun to show us the face behind the enemy’s visor. And to show their human side.

And not all new characters in this book are real historical ones. Arnold continues his strong track record of bringing us vile and hateful villains and believable and sympathetic new heroes. For though this is largely a tale of that great battle, there is another story weaving throughout, involving treachery and espionage – a tale that harks back to earlier books and will doubtless reach ahead through the series.

There was, for me, a slight feeling of a change of direction with the series here, though it might be that that is simply the effect of the subject matter of the book. I guess we will have to wait (gaaagh!) for book 7 to confirm that. And though the direction might be shifting, I have to say that the quality and the pace are not. As usual, Marston Moor is delivered at breakneck speed and with colour and depth throughout.

For me, this book took on an extra valuable aspect, as I am very familiar with many of the locations, from Stryker’s activity across in Lancashire and Forry’s time in York, through all the places in between and right to Marston Moor itself, which I have walked before now. Even the small towns and small villages are close to both my home and my heart, so it was lovely to see their inclusion.

Once battle is joined, be prepared, I would say, for a certain amount of confusion. Though I knew the battle to a certain extent beforehand and was familiar  with many of the leaders and their units, I still found it hard in places to quite latch onto the detailed strategy, and instead threw myself into the action, heedless of the grand scheme above. And, to be honest, that might be a good thing. Too often in historical novels about giant battles I concentrate on the detail rather than the feel. And if you surrender to the feel of Arnold’s battle, what you are faced with is something akin to the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps the mess that was A Bridge Too Far. Because battle is a chaotic and all-consuming thing and Arnold’s depiction carries you along with the action.

And this tale involving a great battle, be prepared for the death of at least someone you have followed throughout the series. It’s inevitable. A battle on this scale cannot be adequately told with all important protagonists escaping with their hides intact. That would be simply unrealistic. And not everyone can achieve everything you want them to. Thus at the end of Marston Moor, Arnold’s entire series balances on a knifepoint.

So there you have it. Great characters, new viewpoints, colour and action, pace and style, one of Britain’s most important and desperate battles told in all its horror and glory. How can you resist it. Arnold continues to ride high as one of the masters of the genre, comparable to the greats. In fact, I think the regular comparisons to Sharpe do him an injustice, for Stryker is a deeper character with greater scope than Sharpe. Perhaps we are approaching times when Stryker will be the one used for comparisons?

The book is out today. Go buy it, people… £9.99 on Amazon

Highwayman Ironside

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I’ll warn you at the outset that this is a review of a short story, not a full novel, since I know a number of folk don’t read short stories. To be honest, I rarely do, except when they’re penned by authors whose full works I regard very highly. Then, often the shorts are side-adventures of their main characters from their novels and thus I tend to read them as part of a series.

I have had Ironside sitting on my kindle, bugging me to read it for quite some time. The reason I hadn’t? Precisely because it was an independent short story and not part of an ongoing series, and with my towering reading pile, there was no easy space to slot it in. But it was never removed from the list, because the author – Michael Arnold – is one of my absolute faves in the historical genre at the moment. He’s something of a ‘golden boy’ for me, since each time he releases one of his ‘Stryker’ novels, I know damn well it’s going to end up in my top 10 at the end of the year. So despite not having got round to reading this short work, I knew I’d enjoy it. And then, surprisingly, last week I found a book in my reading list had been withdrawn temporarily, and I had time. Well, how nice.

Highwayman Ironside is a quick read. Roughly a third of the length of the majority of novels on my kindle, I raced through it rather quicker than I would like, since I hate reaching the end of a book I’m enjoying. And, sadly, the problem with HI is that I had just got into the characters and the swing of things when it ended.  Still, I am not downhearted, partially because for less than the price of a beer, this is a few hours of top-notch entertainment, and partially because the more people tell Michael that this is a lovely intro to the characters and can we now have a novel, the more chance there is that he might do just that!

If you are not familiar with Michael’s books, then shame on you! Check out my reviews on the right-panel listing under ‘Stryker’. You’ll see just how highly I rate them. The Stryker novels are set during the English Civil Wars and follow a Royalist captain on a series of adventures. The character has been compared to Cornwell’s Sharpe, though I prefer Stryker myself. So enter a new milieu in the form of Highwayman Ironside. The tale is set in the 1650s, in the aftermath of the series of bloody civil wars that have devastated the land. They feature a trio of criminals on the highways of southern England, each of whom is interesting in their own right, led by Samson Lyle, known as the Ironside Highwayman.

A former Parliamentarian during the wars and a close companion of Cromwell himself, Lyle has become sick of the new regime, having witnessed firsthand the slaughter in Ireland and, disillusioned with the lack of change under the new revolutionary government, he has been named a traitor and a criminal. Driven by a sense of righteous revenge over the death of his loved ones, Lyle now rides the highways, seeking out those he sees as responsible and doing them mischief.

As you can see there is considerably more to the character than a simple highway robber. He is no Dick Turpin. To some extent, I occasionally caught a shadow in the story that made me think I was looking at the future of Captain Stryker. This story takes place over only three different scenes, yet tells an exciting tale of robbery, single combat, chases, infiltrations and investigations, flight and even a somewhat romantic interlude. In all, the story is well worth the read and I urge you to have a go. And then, hopefully, we’ll have bought enough copies to make Michael pick up his quill and pen a full-length tale of the Ironside Highwayman.

Written by SJAT

January 16, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Warlord’s Gold

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So this is book five in Mike Arnold’s civil war series and I’ve been reading and reviewing since book 1. What can I say that I haven’t already said?

This series is promoted as the ‘Sharpe of the Civil War’. In truth, though I love my Bernard Cornwell series, we are rapidly approaching the point where dear Captain/Major/Colonel Sharpe is actually the ‘Stryker of the Napoleonic Wars’. For me, Captain Innocent Stryker has now become one of the quintessential characters that define modern historical fiction. Macro and Cato, Alan Dale, Valerius, Hatton & Roumande, Two-knives, Raven, Jack Lark, Orm… and Stryker.

Arnold was unpredictable, I feel, in his first three books, in that though each one was an engrossing and rivetting read, they varied between books that were breakneck action, complex hunts, character-driven pieces and so on. By book 3 he had largely hit his stride of combining every stunning aspect into one novel. Book 4 (Assassin’s Reign) was a superb masterpiece of the genre and showed that he had crested the wave and could be relied upon to keep up the standard in every way. Book 5 confirms that.

Warlord’s Gold not only hits the spot in every aspect of historical fiction, it is also Arnold’s tightest, well-resolved and yet most wide-ranging plot yet. Our story begins with two distinct threads (ignoring bad guys that we know are going to converge with one or the other), with Stryker in the Scillies and Forrester (my personal fave character) heading south from Oxford on a special mission. For a lot of the book I presumed this was going to be the way of things, with two stories being told concurrently, each with their own heroes, villains and plots. And yet Arnold seamlessly joins them during the tale, bringing them together into a siege situation the like of which a lover of Zulu would enjoy.

Enough on the plot and writing style. Suffice it to say, the plot is extremely well-crafted, while the writing style is so comfortable and enticing that it is easy to get lost in the tale. Even with a busy life and demanding children, I finished the book in 3 days.

Since my era of choice is Rome, this Civil War series teaches me something with almosy every chapter, and I come away after a Mike Arnold book more insufferably knowledgable than ever I was before. Even just in the use of language (sotweed, dragooners, lobsters and so on.)

But for me, no matter what else good I can say of this series, Arnold’s strength that makes him stand out among peers is his characters. He is capable of creatin such vivid characters that even half-way into their first scene the reader can thoroughly visualise them in their head. Stryker and Forry are prime examples of this, and carry from book to book, with Stryker being easily one of the top 3 most memorable characters in the whole genre for me. But even one-shot villains or supporting characters in these books are so vivid and clear that they steal the stage from one another at every turn. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Arnold creates the most impressive complete nutcases in the literary world! In this particular book we meet a thoroughly disreputable and enjoyable smuggler-turned-privateer, a misshapen vengeful lunatic (though you might know him), a zealous Balkan killer, a reluctant military commander with the heart of a lion and more. It really is a treat to read in terms of character.

The less said about the plot the better, for fear of spoilers, but it will be giving nothing away to those who have read the first four and have seen the book’s title that this one revolves around Cade’s missing treasure and its recovery. In fact it is something of a race between two parties to deliver the gold to their opposing masters, with action all around the south coast this time, ranging from Basing House in Hampshire to the Scilly Isles. One thing for sure is that you cannot predict the path of the plot, so don’t try.

In short, Arnold has become a master of his art, and this book just shows it. This review is redundant for anyone who’s read the rest of the series. If you’ve read books 1-4, you’ve had book 5 on pre-order anyway, I’m pretty damn sure. If not, then you’ve not read any of these. WHY???? Go out and buy them all at once. Don’t waste time where you might have to wait for the next book to be delivered. Take my advice and get them all now.

A thoroughly absorbing masterpiece that deserves to hit the top and stay there.

It’s reigning assassins

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Book 4 in the Civil War saga is released today.

The fourth book in a series is, I sometimes find, a stumbling block for an author. The debut can be strong, the second where they find their feet, and the third where they really shine. Often, though, the fourth is where they over-reach, run out of ideas or become formulaic.

I am delighted to say that none of this holds for Michael Arnold’s new opus.

Continuing a trend of increasing quality, Assassin’s Reign is indeed better even than the excellent Hunter’s Rage, which was itself a triumph.

In this fourth book we find the current dour and acerbic Captain Stryker once more called to carry out the clandestine whims of Prince Rupert, though this time his mission will take him far from the companionship of his company and friends, not only deadly danger, but also into a situation that threatens his very soul. While facing dilemmas and impossible choices – torn between two conflicting duties – Stryker comes face to face with an important figure from his past only to uncover a dastardly plot with far-reaching consequences.

As these troubles progress, we are also treated to a separate thread following the resourceful and dangerous spy Lisette, and her search for the heiress  Cecily Cade. Gradually, as armies manoeuvre around the country to deal with the crucial fortress of Gloucester, Lysette and her mission converge with Stryker and other, more sinister characters, leading to a masterly crescendo.

Much of the novel revolves – without giving away anything important (no spoilers) – around the siege of Gloucester and while, unlike Arnold’s first three books, there is no presentation of a pitched battle in this one, the setting affords for the first time a real opportunity to view the war from both sides of the Royalist/Parliamentarian divide, and also of the Besieged/Besieger one. An opportunity, I may say, that the author takes and makes shine. Where the roundheads are often portrayed in this series as spiteful and harsh puritans (necessarily given the protagonist’s viewpoint) here we meet Parliamentarians that both we – and Stryker – can not only understand, but sympathise with and even rally behind. You will like Massie. I promise.

In this fourth installment we learn a little more of Stryker’s past while being introduced to a couple of new and interesting characters. Stryker is actually given more depth than previously, displaying the less pleasant side of his character as he wallows in the loss of his friend Andrew in the previous book, and struggling with ethical conundrums. Lysette is given more of a starring role, since for much of the book she is the protagonist of her own plot.

The tale is tense and realistic and the quality of the writing is as good as you would expect if you’ve read Hunter’s Rage and its predecessors, but this particular plot gives Arnold the chance to create a more tense and personal atmosphere than in the previous, more ‘pitched battle‘ works.

Stryker and his friends go from strength to strength and if you’ve not read the earlier books in this series, I urge you heartily to hunt them down and read them. If you have, this fourth book should hit the spot perfectly.

Despite its tenseness and atmosphere, this is an action packed, tense tale with the pace of a cavalry charge and the power of a culverin shot.

Well done again, Mr Arnold.

Written by SJAT

July 4, 2013 at 8:00 am

Brothers´ Fury

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Where do I begin?

Perhaps with the fact that I wrote most of this review days ago on a Spanish keyboard and was totally unable to upload it from my position in the south of Spain. So… instead of the book being released today, it’s already been out several days and will hopefully already be a bestseller.

On to the review…

The Bleeding Land was my top book last year, despite some hefty opposition. It was, for me, a game-changer of a book and certainly propelled Giles from an entertaining Skald to a first-rate producer of literature. It was also something of a self-contained novel. I worried upon starting Brothers’ Fury as to whether he could really keep up the dreadful heartbreak of the first into a second book. Well in a way, he hasn’t. And in a way that was the best thing to do.

TBL was harrowing and dark, bleak and soul tearing. Oh, it entertained and there was humour,  but the darker side of it was extraordinarily powerful. I did suspect that Giles would struggle to reproduce that for a second run with the same effect on the reader. But he has, I suspect, not tried to. Instead, this novel takes a more active, immediate and even at times positive direction, which adds a new dimension to the saga and makes it fresh and gives it a new draw. Where the first book was a dark tale of grief and struggle with flashes of humour and adventure, this is more a story of war and action with flashes of the darkness that pervaded the first. In short, where the first novel left the reader fearing for the future of the Rivers family, Brothers’ Fury provides sparks of hope for the future.

It is not quite so much a self-contained novel in the way of the first, but appears as something of a bridge between the introductory heartbreak of TBL and the epic conclusion that is to come in book 3. You see, this is a trilogy, and I often find trilogies fall easily into the Star Wars analogy. The first book was Star Wars. It was almost a complete tale in itself. The third book will be ‘Jedi’ it will finish the tale with gusto and edge-of-the-seat action. The middle tale (Brothers’ Fury) is ‘Empire’. It is an exercise in the building of character and the deepening of the situation. It places the protagonists at their most crucial moments and spins the threads that will allow the conclusion to draw together. Mun, Tom and Bess are (to analogise further) frozen in carbonite, flying out in the Falcon and recovering in sickbay (no guesses who’s doing what). For a while I felt that the plot was a little disjointed until I realised what  it was doing: it was preparing me for what was to come.

Brothers’Fury takes us from a solid conclusion in book 1 to a breath-taking ‘Dear God‘ situation at the end of the second by way of epic battles, heart-stopping sieges, close encounters and stealthy forays into enemy territory. The three main characters grow and deepen and to some extent become more understandable and sympathetic, and the introduction of new characters is also welcome. Jonathan Lidford in particular was a highlight for me.

Giles has lost nothing of his style, language and storytelling ability. Brothers’ Fury was a joy to read and continued the tale of the Rivers children in just the right manner to avoid treading the same ground again and just right to thoroughly entertain. It left me wanting part three straight away, which is always a good sign.

A highly recommended read for the summer. Go get it, people.

Written by SJAT

May 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Hunter’s Rage

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Hunter’s Rage is the third book in Mike Arnold’s Civil War Chronicles, following Traitor’s Blood and Devil’s Charge, a series following the adventures (and misadventures) of one Captain Stryker – a Royalist officer.

I find that any writer, no matter how good their first offerings (and Arnold’s have been excellent), hits their easy and comfortable stride. It often happens with the third book in a series, and Arnold is no different here.

Traitor’s Blood (review here) was a fairly straightforward plot, was hard-hitting, action packed, enthralling and powerful, dragging the reader along at breakneck pace. Devil’s Charge (review here) followed up with a tale that was considerably more complex with interweaving threads. It was no less entertaining than the first and thrilled me to the end, though it felt less immediate and breakneck than the first, perhaps due to its complexity. Don’t be put off by that, though, as both books are excellent and I’m picking apart nuances simply to make a point that concerns neither of them.

The fact is that Hunter’s Rage appears to be the moment when Arnold has hit that stride. It combines all the good points of everything he’s written so far to create a smooth and superb book. It  carries with it the punch and immediacy of the first book as well as the complexity and depth of the second, and sacrifices nothing to do it. In fact, the characterisation (one of Arnold’s strengths in my opinion) has actually improved and the author manages to make the protagonists and antagonists truly sympathetic and believable. He has also introduced new characters that are not just interesting but also memorable. Added to that, he has drawn one of the best characters (Simeon) from book 2. This third book is a very easy read and hooks from the start.

If one had to define the books of the series, and it’s often easy to do, with a theme, I would say that while the first book is about Treachery and Honour, the second about Unjust Punishment and Retribution, this third centres around revenge and religious persecution, from the thoroughly unpleasant witch hunter and his oily sidekick to the mad hermit Gardner, via puritans and practical atheists.

Particularly interesting for me is the setting of the novel, which is entirely in the southwest (Devon and Cornwall). I am largely unfamiliar with the land, and while I have a passing knowledge of chunks of Civil War history from Edgehill, Marston Moor and other famous engagements, I know absolutely nothing about this corner of the war, so it was truly interesting for me.

Another thing that perhaps adds to its punch is the fact that, not only is it set in a fairly small area, with a limited cast of major characters to keep in mind, but it also takes place over a surprisingly short period, which makes it very easy to keep track of.

In addition, Arnold is not afraid, apparently, of passing over the opportunity to reuse characters unnecessarily, just because they already have a place in the saga, or of having horrible things happen to major characters.

Oh, and it also gives us another glance into Stryker’s past, which is welcome.

The series goes from strength to strength, and the fourth book, Assassin’s Reign, is released in July, so you have plenty of time to read all three first, and I urge you to do it.

Highly recommended.

Written by SJAT

March 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Giles Kristian: The bleeding good book…

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Another recommendation for you today. Some time ago, I launched into Giles Kristian’s Raven Saga. You may have seen my reviews knocking around, as they were so good I ran from one to the next seamlessly and enjoyed all three immensely. They were up there with some of the best adventure/historical fiction I’ve read. I never flinched from recommending them. But recently, Giles has turned his not-inconsiderable literary talents toward a new theatre: the English civil war:

The civil war is not a period I know a great deal about and, while I have a passing interest in it, it’s never hooked me so much that I sought out things to read about it (I much prefer looking at historical sites relating to it than reading about it.) It may be that, for me, the civil war has always been just a little too recent.

Saying that, I knew Giles was a good writer from his earlier stuff, and the promo video produced for the book pushed me ever further towards it…


And so I settled into the book not really knowing what to expect but, perhaps, waiting for a Raven-esque adventure saga with lots of God’s Teeth and Damn Your Eyes and Have At Him, Sirrah -s. Ok, there are a few of those, but the novel is totally not what I expected. I suspect, furthermore, that a number of people who were real Raven fanatics will dislike this shift into a deep, thoughtful and saddening world, while other folk who would not consider Raven will flock to it.

The Bleeding Land, you see, is not a war story. It is a tale of a torn family, of the love of brothers and sisters pulled by the fickle strands of fate in different directions to such an extent that they are at war. It is a tale of love and loss and heartbreak and strength and perseverance and duty and honour. In fact, the tale actually ends just after the first major battle of the Civil War, which gives you an idea of where the meat of the story lies: not in battle, but in the story of those who fight it.

That’s enough of the plot. Don’t want to ruin it for you. I will say three things in particular that I consider strengths and which should draw you to want to read it.

Firstly, there is the sheer visual nature of the narrative. It is almost impossible not to completely visualise every scene he writes. In fact, there is such depth of feeling in the descriptive that you can even smell, hear or taste the scene. It was such a shock from almost the opening scene to be drawn so completely in that I felt I was there. This alone is phenomenal and a rare gift.

Secondly, there is the nature of the battle scenes. Battle scenes are very easy to write (from personal experience) for excitement, for horror, for gore, for valour and so on. What Giles manages is to write his civil war millitary engagements from the smallest skirmish to the great ckash at Edgehill with such care that they are all-encompassing. They are all of the above and more and, given the descriptive I mention previously, they are evocative of every clash you’ve seen in a classic movie: the cannon fire in Cromwell, the volley fire in Zulu. They are scenes that will stay in your memory.

Thirdly, the simple skill with words. A score of times or more in the text, I read a phrase, a line, a description, that made me wish I could write even half that well. It is a beautiful piece of narrative.

So go on… You need to follow the tale of Tom and Mun, their parents and sister, of Emmanuel and the folk of Lancashire good and bad. And cheer Prince Rupert (and the King, for I am and will always be a Royalist at heart). This emotional roller-coaster of a tale will tear out your heart and rebuild it only to batter it again. As a last word, I would compare Kristian’s treatment of a torn family to the standalone works of Guy Gavriel Kay (and I can think of no higher praise, Kay having been my favourite writer for decades.)

Buy the Bleeding Land and experience it.

Written by SJAT

July 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm