Over a breathless four hundred pages, which zip along at a considerable rate of knots, Matthew Reilly throws everything including the kitchen sink at his latest thriller, which is also a work of historical fiction.
Set in the mid-Sixteenth Century, the protagonist is Elizabeth I, though this is when she is thirteen, long before she became the indefatigable monarch we know and love. Reilly comes up with an ingenious plot that sees Elizabeth whisked off to Constantinople in the heart of the Ottoman Empire with her tutor Roger Ascham. The Sultan is hosting a chess tournament that will pit all the great nations of the world against one another. Upon arriving they discover a murderer is on the loose. Blessed with one of the finest deductive minds in the world, the rational Ascham is prevailed upon by the Sultan to reveal the identity of the killer and allow the popular chess tournament to continue uninterrupted. Throw in some scheming Catholic cardinals, affairs of the heart, orgies and a string of grisly murders and you have all the ingredients of a cracking yarn.
The chess tournament backdrop lends the book a feel of Casino Royale, once you replace the board game for cards. The dangerous yet glamorous world of Fleming’s James Bond is evidently an influence – don’t let the historical setting of a murder mystery fool you into thinking The Tournament is another The Name of the Rose. It fits more neatly alongside the works of Dan Brown.
Reilly states in his introduction that the novel is intended for mature readers, since there are aspects that are sexually explicit in nature. However, The Tournament reads more like a work of teenage fiction, and most teens these days are sexually savvy. In terms of bringing history to life, Reilly is acting like Roger Ascham where his audience is Elizabeth and her contemporaries. There’s a good moral heart to the story, so it’s hard to see the objections to encouraging a young readership.
The Tournament will find its fans amongst a younger audience rather than history buffs. Whilst mostly set within the Hagia Sofia, the backdrop could really be any palatial residence. A few historical figures pop up whose inclusion is gratuitous, notably Michelangelo (there are one or two others). Such additions serve to illustrate the plot-driven nature of the story. Whilst some of the main characters are deftly drawn and ring true, many are ciphers serving the plot, which is not without its own problems. The framing device is downright ludicrous. We’re asked to believe that Elizabeth I on her deathbed told the story of her childhood trip to Constantinople to a maidservant, who then relays it in first person and in great detail to the reader. Surely finding a manuscript in the queen’s hand would be vastly more credible? The exhilarating bravura with which Reilly writes doesn’t paper over such structural problems, and a tighter and more focused plot would save us from the silliest scenarios – the young princess attacked by wolves amongst the worst offenders (we won’t explain that one, you’ll have to read it…)
Regardless of the individual merits of plot versus character, The Tournament is a highly entertaining book with a genuinely intriguing murder mystery at its heart. It’s an easy read and terrific fun, with enough wit (especially in the wonderful character of Roger Ascham – part Indiana Jones, part Sherlock Holmes) to keep the reader hooked from start to finish. There are a few long conversational digressions into history lessons, but we actually rather enjoyed those!
Another major plus point for the book is in its presentation of credible villains. Reilly rightly pulls no punches in representing the Catholic cardinals as corrupt, power-mad child rapists (some things never change) who are a cancerous presence at the tournament. The oleaginous clerics make for wonderful adversaries. The Sultan and his wife are enjoyable amoral schemers too, and you’re never quite sure who to trust. Some of the twists and turns the plot takes are cleverly conceived, keeping you guessing right to the very end about the mysteries at the heart of the story.
Overall, The Tournament is a lot of fun to read. What it lacks in literary merit it makes up for in its audacious storytelling and clever murder mystery. Fans of Reilly’s earlier works will not be disappointed, and they will form the natural readership for this one.