Marston Moor | Michael Arnold | 2015, Pb 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
Summer 1644: the English Civil War comes to a head in the fiercely contested towns and fields of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The Royalists are under siege in York, Prince Rupert and his army are desperately in need of securing the port of Liverpool for supplies and Irish reinforcements, and a Scottish force has crossed the border to aid the Parliamentarians against those who seek to advise the misled King. There is little glamorous about Civil War and nothing shows this more than the devastation that causes the streets of Bolton-le-Moors to run with blood. The town hung a Royalist to die from its walls – the town will pay with the rape and murder of almost all of its citizens. Caught in the middle of this are three figures: a young girl, Faith Helly, who hides in an oven and watches her prospective father-in-law and his entire family murdered, Captain John Kendrick who kills them, and Stryker, now promoted to Major, who saves her and swears from that point to protect her from a war in which abominations are committed by both sides.
Marston Moor follows the events of a few short weeks during the summer of 1644 in which the Royalist and Parliamentarian forces are greatly stretched. King Charles is in Oxford, waiting for deliverance from his nephew Rupert’s army but, before that can happen, Liverpool must be taken, York must be relieved. Both armies are suffering from the trauma of Bolton-le-Moors which opens the novel; it would seem that the country can take no more – they’re out of luck. Events culminate in early July and the Battle of Marston Moor, close to York, one of the bloodiest battles that has ever taken place on English soil and a turning point in the Civil War. It is that terrible battle, as well as the events that led up to it, that Michael Arnold explores here in this superb, disturbing and powerful novel.
Marston Moor is the sixth in Michael Arnold’s Civil War Chronicles but it is very different to any of its preceding novels. While I would suggest that you read the other novels first – if only because they’re fantastic and the finest novels on the English Civil War you could read – this latest book does work well as a stand alone. Much of the back history, especially that surrounding the relationship between the hero Stryker and Lisette, the Queen’s spy, is secondary to the events of these few summer weeks. The focus in Marston Moor is very tight, the mood is far more grim, Stryker is as much a witness of war as he is a participant, the story moves beyond his viewpoint. The story of the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644 is very much the subject of the novel, anything else is secondary.
Despite the fact that the emphasis here is on a significant historical event, familiar characters move through the story, not least Stryker, but also his men, including Hood and Barkworth – those that survive. It wouldn’t be a Stryker novel without a puzzle and an adventure and those are also found here. Kendrick and Faith ensnare Stryker in a mystery that could strike at the heart of the forces commanding the Civil War. Keeping the girl safe will be no easy task, not least because the devilish Kendrick with the filed teeth is looking out for Stryker on the battlefield.
The battle itself is extraordinarily evoked – bloody, noisy, visceral, stinking, utterly terrifying. There is no adventure to be found here, only men desperate to survive. It is ugly and deadly. The dramatisation of Marston Moor takes up a good part of the novel and it is not always easy to read but this shows why I am such a huge fan of Michael Arnold. The author knows the Civil War inside out, he’s got to the heart of it, and it’s this mix of knowledge and enthusiasm that has ensnared me in his books. Before I read the first Stryker novel, I had little more than a vague historical interest in the Civil War. As a direct result of these books I am now a Civil War nut! I have hunted out the places in these novels, seen the bullet holes in the church walls, and walked over the battlefields. Each of the books takes us to a different part of the war-scarred English landscape. In this book, it’s the turn of Lancashire and Cheshire and yet again Michael Arnold brings it to life with astonishing colour.
One of the reasons why this series works so well, quite apart from the historical and military insight of the author, is the character of Innocent Stryker. To some he is the devil, with his scarred face and his one eye, but he is a remarkable figure. A career soldier, he has seen war on the continent and now, to his misery, he must endure it on home soils, too. He knows better than anyone the cost of war and in this war he must experience the good and evil of both sides. Marston Moor is set at a critical time in the Civil War. The Parliamentarians are on the rise, thanks in part to a new character that is introduced in this novel – General Oliver Cromwell. We witness the corruption and villainy of both sides, the heroism of both sides. It’s powerful stuff.
I admire a series that doesn’t make use of all of its key characters in every book. Marston Moor is another in which Lisette doesn’t appear. Tragically, though, it is clear that with a battle as devastating as Marston Moor not everyone that we care for will survive. This coming and going of characters, their legacy and their influence on Stryker, are significant elements of the series and in none is it felt as keenly as in Marston Moor. The Civil War Chronicles is an outstanding series – Marston Moor, for all its bleakness and violence, is the best.
Stryker Chronicles I: Traitor’s Blood
Stryker Chronicles II: Devil’s Charge
Stryker Chronicles III: Hunter’s Rage
Stryker Chronicles IV: Assassin’s Reign
Stryker Chronicles V: Warlord’s Gold