Ever since Michael Arnold ignited in me a fascination with the English Civil War – in fiction and in the hitherto unexplored history of places around me – I have seized upon his Stryker Chronicles. Captain Stryker has my full attention. A one-eyed, brave and formidable Royalist, he leads a small band of battered men on desperate missions to put a halt to the progress of rebel forces. Always, though, matters get personal.
In the first two novels, Traitor’s Blood and Devil’s Charge, we have seen Stryker under fire at Edgehill and under siege at Lichfield. Now, in the third novel Hunter’s Rage, Stryker is located on the border of Parliamentarian Devon and the staunchly Royalist Cornwall. While news spreads of forces amassing on either side, Stryker is marooned with just a few men on Dartmoor. With nothing but ancient stones for cover, Stryker has to fight off two rebels with very personal grudges against him. Colonel Wild, known for the black cormorant feathers in his cap and those of his men, wants vengeance on the man who stole from him a wagon of gunpowder but Osmyn Hogg is another matter entirely. Hogg is a witch finder, freshly returned from Salem. He can never forget an injury done to him by Stryker and he will prick and torture his way to his sole goal – Stryker hanging on a rope not long enough to break his neck.
To complicate matters further, Stryker has to protect a young woman Cecily who holds the secret to something that both sides want desperately. By Stryker’s side though are his loyal men and the extraordinary Payne, a giant of a man, a real figure from history, who strikes fear into the heart of every enemy but very different emotions in ours.
The excitement of the adventure never eases and yet through it all we have glimpses of the relationships between Stryker and his men. There are familiar figures here from the previous two novels and so I would urge you to read these novels in sequence if you haven’t done so already. Matters do get complicated and they have consequences. You’ll feel it more if you’ve read the previous books.
While Traitor’s Blood and Devil’s Charge are both excellent novels, it is clear from a very early stage that Hunter’s Rage exceeds even them. Each of the three novels are as exciting as the others, but in Hunter’s Rage, the characterisation and storytelling reach new heights. I was especially struck by the quality of the dialogue and the relationships between the characters but, more than anything, it is the mood of this third novel that makes such a deep impression. With the setting of the bleak and exposed moors a constant factor, we vividly watch men scramble to stay alive. As usual with the Stryker Chronicles we are struck by how Civil War can create demons on both sides and it’s the innocent who suffer. Good men fight good men but there are also truly evil men here who are given free reign by the excuse of war.
I thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of Hunter’s Rage. I loved the friction caused between the men by Cecily. I was also terrified by Hogg.
The story is tightly plotted and the fact that everything takes place over just a few weeks during the spring of 1643 means that we are never allowed to take our eyes off the action. The familiar places of Bude and Okehampton have new colour for me now as I think of the unmarked graves that cover this landscape, the result of forgotten skirmishes.
There is something else that impresses me about Hunter’s Rage. Mike Arnold has created a fascinating cast of characters but such is the strength of his storytelling he doesn’t need to use all of them all of the time, or even for an entire novel.
I have no doubt that Hunter’s Rage will count among my favourite reads of 2012. It is published on 2 August.