Captain Stryker is a man to be reckoned with – with one eye obliterated and masked by scar tissue and the other one always alert for danger, he has by his side a small troop of dedicated and loyal men, good shots one and all. Their mission is to forward the cause of Prince Rupert and the prince’s uncle Charles I against the Parliamentarians. Stryker’s more pressing concern is to protect Lisette Gaillard, the agent of Charles’ formidable Queen and ‘She-Majesty Generalissima’ Henrietta, who would protest that it is she who must look out for Innocent Stryker. What is clear is that while reading Michael Arnold’s The Stryker Chronicles you are behind Stryker and Lisette every step of the way, urging them on and shying away when they take one of the many blows aimed for them.
The first novel, Traitor’s Blood, is set in the closing months of 1642, beginning with one of the first major conflicts of the English Civil War at Edgehill. Devil’s Charge picks up the action in 1643 with the battle for Cirencester. Much of the novel, however, focuses on the siege of Lichfield, a strategically-placed city between Charles’ capital in Oxford and his more northern strongholds. Lichfield is held (just) by a gout-ridden royalist who, fortunately for him, has Stryker and his men within the city walls thanks to the presence of a wounded Lisette in the infirmary.
Devil’s Charge is a more substantial novel than Traitor’s Blood. At almost 500 pages, all opportunity is taken to extract every ounce of drama, action and suspense from the conflicts, whether a full-scale battle or a duel to the death between Stryker and whichever mortal enemy wants to kill him next. There are a fair few of them.
The focus of evil in Devil’s Charge is Major Girns, whose sole desire is to destroy the two Blaze brothers. The Blaze brothers are masters of artillery and and as such hold the gift of victory in their hands. For this is a turning point in warfare. Guns and swords are used equally on the battlefield. A bullet might be deadly but a gun was cumbersome, slow to be reloaded, unwieldy to carry. A sword would often be used to finish the enemy off. But with Black Bess on your side, and a genius like Jonathan Blaze lighting its fuse, much could be gained. Stryker has his hands full with Girns – and Lisette.
One of the reasons why I enjoy The Stryker Chronicles so much is that they present a living and breathing map of an England torn into many pieces by civil war four hundred years ago. I recognise the names and places and it’s extraordinary to think of battles in the fields and streets of some very familiar places. However, if you know nothing at all about the time or the place, that won’t matter at all thanks to the details, the action, the characters and the spirit and pace of the storytelling. There are a wealth of characters to enjoy here, regardless of the size of their roles. Stryker is at the heart but around him we have friends, lovers, commanders, enemies, scoundrels and frightened soldiers – even the horses have names and a place here.
The story of the struggle between Stryker, Lisette and their comrades is what matters here. The ‘greater’ conflict between king and parliament is secondary. There is good and bad on both sides and it is clear that in a war such as this loyalty is more complicated. It did indeed divide towns and families. It is that human drama, wrapped up in an exciting adventure full of as much swash and buckle as you could possible wish for, that makes Devil’s Charge well worth your time and pennies.