Despite having lived in Charles I’s Oxford for most of my life, I’m ashamed to admit that the English Civil War has remained a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve sat in a seat in Charles I’s wooden Oxford Parliament, I’ve admired his statue outside the Bodleian, I’ve read my Sir Walter Scott and I’ve even excavated some Civil War defences. But, until reading Mike Arnold’s Traitor’s Blood, I hadn’t thought about the impact of this perilous and key period of English history on the lives and fortunes of men and women, people just like you and me, who were trying to make as comfortable a life as possible for themselves. That is, until Roundheads and Royalists marched through the towns and villages, stealing resources, houses, horses, sons for the cause. Sometimes, townspeople stood together and defended their homes but it’s possible that, more often than not, they got a pike in the gut for their trouble.
Traitor’s Blood, the first in a series to chronicle the adventures of Royalist Captain Stryker, combines the thrill and excitement of adventure – and it is very exciting – with something more thought provoking. Those caught up in the conflict, whether they wore the red sashes of the Royalists or the orange sashes of the Parliamentarians, were fighting for ideals. Charles I was a divine appointed monarch to many and they flocked to the standard of their king and his glamorous, giant of a nephew Prince Rupert. Others fought for a republic, free of papacy and the whim of a weak king. This idealism, as Arnold vividly shows here, led brave men to horrendous deaths in hand to hand combat. The soldiers may have had pistols and cannon but these could only be fired the once. After that, it was all swords, daggers and fists.
Beginning with Edgehill in October 1642, the first (and indecisive) full battle between the Royalists and Rebels, Traitor’s Blood follows the mission of Captain Stryker, set by Prince Rupert, to apprehend a spy wanted by both sides. Stryker has only half a face, the rest was burnt away by his arch enemy turncoat Eli Makepeace. It’s not long before Stryker realises that chief resistance to his mission will come from this very same man. There is another dangerous threat in the shape of Roger Tainton, a Puritan knight in black armour, who is as resolute as he is skilled in strategy and fighting. Matters are complicated by Frenchwoman Lisette Gaillardia who has her own mission, set by Charles I’s queen, and who will bring her own force to bear on Stryker and his men.
In addition to the thrill of the action and the horror of the history, a principal reason for the success of Traitor’s Blood lies in the characterisation. While there is the element of the familiar in villains such as Makepeace, the majority of characters are vividly realised to the extent that there is good and bad in all. In particular, Roger Tainton is admirable despite his determination to destroy our hero, while Stryker himself knows full well he is a killer. Other men, leaders on both sides, know that they are forcing their men forwards to near certain death, just to protect a road, a house or a river, long enough for reinforcements or an escape.
We follow events over just a couple of months and, in these very early stages of civil war, neither side has the advantage despite both believing they have the moral high ground. This to and fro between successes and failures builds the drama of the novel. After all, there is a long way for Charles to go before he reaches the block. The disorganisation permits small enclaves of fighting in besieged houses or among the trees. Legends grow. Soon everyone knows about the one-eyed Captain Stryker.
Michael Arnold writes extremely well, picturing the grand scene of a battle as well as the more intimate moments. I enjoyed the details, especially in the descriptions of clothes and weapons, in the terrain and in the map the story evoked in my mind of familiar places and landmarks. For the first time, I found myself thinking about this time in England’s history when warfare was both medieval and modern, and made even more dangerous for that.
I’m usually put off a book if comparisons are drawn between its hero and Sharpe – I am not a fan of the Sharpe novels. Traitor’s Blood deserves to stand and be read on its own merit. When all is said and done, Captain Stryker is a terrific military hero, combining just the right amout of honour, heart and ruthlessness, who gathers some fascinating characters about him, not least Lisette.
I’m delighted to say that the second in the Stryker Chronicles, Devil’s Charge, was published this August and there are more on the way.