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Stryker goes from strength to strength
on 15 July 2013
The fourth book in a series is, I sometimes find, a stumbling block for an author. The debut can be strong, the second where they find their feet, and the third where they really shine. Often, though, the fourth is where they over-reach, run out of ideas or become formulaic.
I am delighted to say that none of this holds for Michael Arnold's new opus.
Continuing a trend of increasing quality, Assassin's Reign is indeed better even than the excellent Hunter's Rage, which was itself a triumph.
In this fourth book we find the current dour and acerbic Captain Stryker once more called to carry out the clandestine whims of Prince Rupert, though this time his mission will take him far from the companionship of his company and friends, not only deadly danger, but also into a situation that threatens his very soul. While facing dilemmas and impossible choices - torn between two conflicting duties - Stryker comes face to face with an important figure from his past only to uncover a dastardly plot with far-reaching consequences.
As these troubles progress, we are also treated to a separate thread following the resourceful and dangerous spy Lisette, and her search for the heiress Cecily Cade. Gradually, as armies manoeuvre around the country to deal with the crucial fortress of Gloucester, Lysette and her mission converge with Stryker and other, more sinister characters, leading to a masterly crescendo.
Much of the novel revolves - without giving away anything important (no spoilers) - around the siege of Gloucester and while, unlike Arnold's first three books, there is no presentation of a pitched battle in this one, the setting affords for the first time a real opportunity to view the war from both sides of the Royalist/Parliamentarian divide, and also of the Besieged/Besieger one. An opportunity, I may say, that the author takes and makes shine. Where the roundheads are often portrayed in this series as spiteful and harsh puritans (necessarily given the protagonist's viewpoint) here we meet Parliamentarians that both we - and Stryker - can not only understand, but sympathise with and even rally behind. You will like Massie. I promise.
In this fourth installment we learn a little more of Stryker's past while being introduced to a couple of new and interesting characters. Stryker is actually given more depth than previously, displaying the less pleasant side of his character as he wallows in the loss of his friend Andrew in the previous book, and struggling with ethical conundrums. Lysette is given more of a starring role, since for much of the book she is the protagonist of her own plot.
The tale is tense and realistic and the quality of the writing is as good as you would expect if you've read Hunter's Rage and its predecessors, but this particular plot gives Arnold the chance to create a more tense and personal atmosphere than in the previous, more `pitched battle` works.
Stryker and his friends go from strength to strength and if you've not read the earlier books in this series, I urge you heartily to hunt them down and read them. If you have, this fourth book should hit the spot perfectly.
Despite its tenseness and atmosphere, this is an action packed, tense tale with the pace of a cavalry charge and the power of a culverin shot.
Well done again, Mr Arnold.