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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

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