The Tournament by Matthew Reilly

July 27, 2015

England, 1546. A young Princess Elizabeth is surrounded by uncertainty. She is not currently in line for the throne, but remains a threat to her older sister and brother.

In the midst of this fevered atmosphere comes an unprecedented invitation from the Sultan in Constantinople. He seeks to assemble the finest chess players from the whole civilised world and pit them against each other.

Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s teacher and mentor in the art of power and politics, is determined to keep her out of harm’s way and resolves to take Elizabeth with him when he travels to the glittering Ottoman capital for the tournament.

But once there, the two find more danger than they left behind. There’s a killer on the loose and a Catholic cardinal has already been found mutilated. Ascham is asked by the Sultan to investigate the crime. But as he and Elizabeth delve deeper, they find dark secrets, horrible crimes and unheard-of depravity. Things that mark the young princess for life and define the queen she will become.

If you had told me a week ago I was going to be reading a historical thriller set against the backdrop of an international chess tournament, I’d imagine I would have been more than a little sceptical. If I’m entirely honest, I’m not a huge fan of the game and I didn’t think I could ever be engrossed by story where it is a key element. Turns out I was wrong.

Though young Princess Elizabeth features heavily, she acts primarily as an observer. It is her mentor, Roger Ascham, who is the real hero of the day. Having a keen analytical mind and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge stands him in good stead as he is tasked with uncovering the identity of a murderer. Why are those involved with the tournament being picked off? What motive can there be for killing a man of God? Watching Ascham as he pieces together the puzzle, and uncovers a few others along the way, is the highlight of the novel. All the while he is teaching Elizabeth the key skills she will need in later life.  

The focus of the story is the murder but Reilly also weaves a handful of additional themes into the narrative. The plot explores everything from the rise of imperialism through to the interpretation of religious doctrine. Sixteenth century Constantinople is the perfect location to discuss all these ideas. The city was a vast melting pot where ancient civilizations meet modern ideas,  where East meets West. The culture clash between all the various factions feels almost palpable.  The games at the tournament act as a microcosm for all the political power plays and manoeuvring that is going on behind the scenes on a much larger scale. Representatives of the other countries taking part all attemp to use the Sultan’s challenge to further their own ends.   

This author is known for his past paced action thrillers, but The Tournament is a sideways step away from that. Think more along the lines of a murder mystery/whodunnit. This novel is all about plots and counterplots. Action and teeth-rattling explosions are replaced with politics, intrigue and pursuit of power.  There are moments where you will be able to spot glimpses of Reilly’s trademark flair for action, but for the most part he keeps a tight rein on things. I consider myself a Matthew Reilly fan and I find that I like this change of pace. Don’t get me wrong, I have been (and always will be) a fan of the Scarecrow novels, they tend to be spectacularly OTT in terms of action, but it is interesting to see an author you already know try something new. There are a couple of throwaway lines towards the end of the novel that suggest that Roger Ascham may return again in the future. I do hope so. I like the idea that I get the opportunity to enjoy Matthew Reilly’s historical fiction and his modern thrillers as well. Sounds like the best of both worlds to me.

If you are a fan of Reilly’s other novels then I urge you to give this a go. Though it doesn’t share the same breakneck pacing of his other books, it still manages to be a suitably entertaining work.

The Tournament is published by Orion and is available now.  

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