Sometimes, historical novels can have an overblown sense of their own importance. All that history, all that fastidious research, can get in the way of a rollicking good time. Matthew Reilly’s The Tournament dispenses with the usual gravitas to present a story with a boisterous cartoon energy.
This frisky narrative, full of corpulent cardinals and hulking eunuchs , is all the more surprising as it’s set against the backdrop of that brain-numbing of pastimes, chess. Happily, The Tournament is to chess what Wacky Races is to Grand Prix.
The tournament in question is a terrific conceit, a chess tournament lost to history, held by Sulieman The Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in Constantinople in 1546. This tournament attracts players from all the other empires of Europe, along with assorted historical figures. Henry VIII sends his own player, who is accompanied by none other than the future Queen Elizabeth, a mere girl at this point. There are murders and conspiracies – Bess and her tutor make a fine pair of amateur sleuths – and a lot of dastardly goings on.
You may have noticed that the blurb has just taken your bishop:
England, 1546: A young Princess Elizabeth is surrounded by uncertainty. The Black Death stalks the land and with it deadly conspiracies against her. She is not currently in line for the throne, but she 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 players of chess from the whole civilised world and pit them against each other. The prize? Fabulous wealth but also the honour of Christendom. Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s teacher and mentor, is determined to keep her out of harm’s way and also continue her education in the art of power and politics. Ascham resolves to take Elizabeth with him when he accompanies the English chess champion to the Ottoman capital. But once there, the two find more danger than they left behind.
There’s a grotesque killer on the loose and a Catholic cardinal has already been found mutilated in the grounds of the palace. Ascham is asked by the Sultan to use his razor-sharp mind to investigate the crime. But as he and Elizabeth delve deeper into the murky world of the court and the glittering chess tournament, they find dark secrets, horrible crimes and unheard-of depravity. Things that mark the young princess for life and define the queen that she will become…
The Tournament is a curious change of direction for Matthew Reilly, who usually writes techno-thrillers, but it doesn’t really read like a historical novel. The Tournament is proper bonkers, and highly-enjoyable as long as you go in in the full expectation that your appreciation of the great forces of history will not be significantly enhanced.
It’s all primal colour and opulence, fun and frolics, and the swaggering characters from different nations are written with broad strokes. Some of the Elizabeth’s contemporaries provide cameos of great gusto – and luckily, everyone speaks Greek!
One infamous Russian tyrant makes an appearance, although at his tender age he’s more Dennis The Menace than Ivan The Terrible. Michelangelo is there, as well, kindly taking compliments about his ceiling. (‘Fame, let me tell you, is most overrated’). Elizabeth’s famous tutor Roger Ascham, an extraordinary polymath, is a winningly prototype Holmes, but with bigger ears and a talent for psychological profiling that would put Quantico to shame.
There’s a Carry On verve to the whole thing. Elizabeth travels with her friend Elsie, who lasciviously recounts all her sexual exploits with the men attending the tournament and, although this is intended as an explanation for Elizabeth’s famous rule as the Virgin Queen, Elsie’s saucy experiences sit somewhat uneasily beside the horrific abuse at the core of the conspiracy.
I found that Bess’s Violet Bott narration grates a bit considering she’s telling the story from her deathbed, but it does at least bring to mind Miranda Richardson’s definitive portrayal of the monarch in Blackadder.
I’m fairly certain, however, that it’s the most-entertaining novel about chess that I’ll ever read – there are some fancy that! factoids about the evolution of the game between chapters – although I confess I’ve no immediate plans to read another book about chess. The Tournament is no Flashman, but it moves fast and provides plenty of gruesome murders, some sturdy action and a cast of larger-than-life characters, and makes a fun read if you require, as we all do on occasion, something with ruffles.
Many thanks to Graeme Williams at Orion for the ARC.