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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

Warlord’s Gold

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mawg

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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maar

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

Hunter’s Rage

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mahr

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