Book review: Assassin’s Reign by Michael Arnold
For those not familiar with Arnold’s terrific series of historical thrillers, now is definitely the time to catch up with lean, mean Stryker and his hardy foot soldiers and head for the major battlefields of 17th century England.
These action-packed, exhilarating novels just get better and better as the author charts a blood-soaked, chronological course through the bitter, factional war that split England in two and turned citizen against citizen, town against town.
Each story provides a fascinating geographical map of the conflict’s major battlegrounds and a snapshot of the men – and women – who became embroiled in a very personal struggle.
Leading the Cavalier charge is Captain Innocent Stryker, a cynical, battle-scarred man for all seasons, a professional soldier who cares more for his men than the cause. His implacable warriors are imbued with the terrifying ‘easy nonchalance that only experience could give,’ his Parliamentarian enemies are fanatical and ruthless and his battles are brutal and merciless.
In the fourth book in this cracking series, we find Stryker and his company still reeling from the loss of a close friend at the bloody Battle of Stratton but fully aware that the forces of King Charles have made good ground in the West Country and that the Parliamentarians are in deep crisis.
The crucial port city of Bristol has fallen, its buildings reduced to smoking shells, and Royalist eyes are now falling upon neighbouring Gloucester whose capture could secure the Severn Valley.
The city’s walls are notoriously weak, its garrison under strength and its new governor, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Massie, is rumoured to have more than just sympathy for the king.
Ordered by the king’s brave but reckless soldier cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, to infiltrate the rebel city on a mission to discover whether Massie will indeed surrender, Stryker feigns turncoat and reluctantly embarks upon his most desperate mission yet.
But as Gloucester comes under siege, its defenders prove to be more resolute than anticipated and catastrophe soon befalls him. With his life seemingly forfeit, Stryker is spared by Vincent Skaithlocke, his former commander and an unlikely saviour.
The mercenary has returned to England to fight for Parliament and offers Stryker his protection. As the old friends adjust to fighting for opposing sides, Stryker begins to question his own loyalties.
Meanwhile, Stryker’s French amour, the knife-wielding Royalist spy Lisette Gaillard, is on her own perilous mission to track down kidnapped heiress Cecily Cade who has knowledge of a valuable treasure trove.
Their paths are set to cross but not before a chance discovery makes Stryker realise that all in Gloucester is not what it seems… a hidden menace threatens his own life and that of King Charles himself.
Arnold moves into new and fascinating territory in Assassin’s Reign, casting Stryker into the heart of an enemy den and allowing us to see the war from both sides of the deep divide. This is a more personal, soul-searching view of Stryker than we have previously been permitted as he wrestles with events in the past and the morality of his role in an increasingly savage and desperate conflict.
As the characters of Stryker and his cohorts gain new depth and meaning with every instalment, so too does this impressive historical series with its powerful and vivid evocation of time, place and war.
History brought to glorious, gripping life…
(Hodder, paperback, £8.99)