When I first started reading Matthew Reilly’s, The Tournament, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, despite the fact it ticked so many interesting fiction boxes. First, it was historical fiction, which I adore. Second, it was set during the reign of Henry VIII – another positive. Third, it featured a young Elizabeth and her famous tutor, Roger Ascham, so was set on the margins of a period I’ve been researching in depth for over a year now. Lastly, a great deal of the action takes place in Constantinople – modern day Istanbul, a city I loved when I was lucky enough to visit it two years ago. All this was in the novel’s favour. What initially worked against it for me was the extraordinarily modern language of the characters (Henry VIII’s and other characters’ use of the “f” word and other familiar contemporary expletives for example), the fact that though it’s documented that Elizabeth, during her life and reign never went more than 100 miles from London, here she travels to Turkey. I also struggled with the way she was portrayed and her relationship with her father, never mind other characters in the story, which is very much at odds with the character historians and documented records portray. The historical leniency Reilly deployed, or rather, literary license he employed, in terms of clothing and places as well as modes of transport and inter-relationships, all really grated. I am not a purist by any means, but some of the scenes and characters – their dialogue, ideas that just didn’t exist at the time or attitudes that were expressed that were so remote from the era almost had me putting the book down… except I didn’t. Not only did I really like the very original idea of this fictitious chess tournament run by a proud sultan with an axe or scimitar to grind with his foreign royal peers, and putting young Bess in its midst, but Reilly is such a great storyteller, even when I was grinding my teeth and reminding myself that this was a novel first and foremost and forget the history (which is, arguably, a work of fiction anyhow), I was turning the pages and wanting to know what happened. What a craftsman, I kept thinking, what a damn fine lexical craftsman. I forgot my peeves and peevishness and simply enjoyed.
Reilly’s fabulation – that 13-year-old Elizabeth Tudor and her sex-crazed companion (Elise?) accompany Roger Ascham and an English chess champion to Constantinople to compete in a “world” tournament, along with two prudish chaperones – is a coming of age story for the future monarch (and in his Author’s Note, Reilly explains that a great deal of what unfolds is meant to provide psychological context to make sense of decisions Elizabeth makes when she becomes queen – eg, remaining a virgin), as well as a murder mystery.
Travelling to Constantinople poses its own dangers for the English group as they pass through villages, mountains and travel along unfamiliar roads, encountering friendship, hostility and a serious attempt to curtail their journey, but once in the city, the tension between rival religious and ethnic groups makes their trip to Constantinople seem like a walk in the bazaar. When bodies start appearing within the Topkapi Palace, Ascham is asked by the sultan to investigate and so, young Bess is exposed to a slice or slices (excuse the pun, which will become evident once you read the book) of life and a range of people that, with her privileged station, she might never have met.
Smart, assured, and usually one step ahead of the culprit, Ascham not only exposes a corrupt and decadent city and ruler, but finds himself in a race against time to find the killer before he or she claims more victims, including the one person he really cares about.
Fast-paced, able to balance action with more measured scenes and make chess fascinating even for non-players, Reilly has crafted an inventive and fun take on Tudor history. Far from putting it down, I was forever picking it up and ended up really enjoying this rollicking tale, even if it didn’t always satisfy my non-purist historical fiction desires. I give it 3.5 stars. But sheesh, I give Reilly 4.5 for his fictive chutzpah. Wish I had it!