At the close of each novel, Mike Arnold reassures us that Captain Stryker will return. The wait, though, is not an easy one and it isn’t helped by each book proving itself even better than its predecessor. The Stryker Chronicles brings the English Civil War to life in all its blood-spilt, mud-drenched, gunpowder-smoked colour and noise and it has become one of my favourite series of any genre. Not surprisingly, then, Assassin’s Reign, the fourth in the series, is every bit as excellent as I knew it would be. This is quite an achievement because the last novel in the series, Hunter’s Rage (review here) was among my top books of 2012.
Assassin’s Reign could be read as a standalone novel but that would mean you have lost the development of the characters as well as knowledge of key events which have shaped Stryker the soldier and the man. I would suggest you begin with Traitor’s Blood. Spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable below, although kept to the minimum.
The novels each focus on a different area of England, reflecting the fluctuating fortunes of the Royalists and Roundheads (both otherwise known as malignants and devils). In Assassin’s Reign, the action moves to Gloucester, Parliament’s last stronghold in the west and, since the recent fall of Bristol to the King’s men, not expected to last. Stryker and his men are diverted from their intended goal of London and the rescue of Cecily Cade from Parliament. Cecily keeps the secret to the location of a great treasure and it is imperative that she is rescued from enemy hands before she is forced to reveal it. But, as is so often the case in these novels, Prince Rupert has other intentions. Stryker instead becomes a crucial part of his plan to end Parliament’s resistance in Gloucester. Rupert’s uncle the King won’t permit an all-out offensive against the city but Rupert has his ways of working around the King’s rules. Stryker is the key to his plan.
Meanwhile, Stryker’s lover Lisette is on her own mission, sent by the Queen to rescue Cecily herself and bring her to King Charles wherever he may be. Unfortunately, Charles is at Gloucester, where he is sought not just by Lisette and Cecily but also by those who have their own scheme to bring the war to the conclusion they want.
The focus of the series is always the one-eyed, brutally scarred Captain Stryker. He fights for the Royalist cause but this has much more to do with his loyalties to other men and women than to the King and his generals. He has almost as many enemies among the King’s men as he does among Parliament’s. Enough battles have been fought now for the blood of good people to have been spilt on both sides and in Assassin’s Reign it all becomes much more complicated. We get to learn a little more about the King, we witness the bravery and courage of Gloucester’s citizens and their very young military leader and we are presented with the horror and death that the men on both sides of the city’s old walls experience. As the Civil War becomes ever more desperate and close, it is harder for men such as Stryker to excuse what they are a part of. Always most important to Stryker, though, is loyalty to Lisette and his men, even more so now that they are fewer in number. The Stryker of Assassin’s Reign has become damaged in some ways, even more than the scarred face indicates.
Assassin’s Reign is not a novel of big battles. Instead, it tells the determined battle of Gloucester to hold and to Rupert’s men to capture it. There is a strong sense that this could be a turning point in the war. The novel is never less than gripping and its depiction of the Civil War is always vivid and powerful. Stryker is an immensely charismatic individual, one we have grown to care for and his inner struggles here are all the more pageturning for that. Lisette makes her return in Assassin’s Reign and I liked her here more than I did in the previous novels. Her bravery is outstanding and I found her sections of the novel as exciting as Stryker’s.
This is a novel steeped in the time, full of historical and military detail. Its prose also unobtrusively evokes the time. Reading Assassin’s Reign it is very apparent how alien this England is to us today and yet its signs are all around us. This series of books has made me hunt them out across the midlands, Oxfordshire, the west and Cornwall. I have become obsessive about searching out plaques, tombstones, bullet holes and battlefields. Now I need to take another closer look at Gloucester. Don’t underestimate the power of this series to get under your skin! It brings history alive.