Review: The Tournament by Matthew Reilly - Chivalry, Challenges, Checkmate.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

The Tournament by Matthew Reilly
Released: 1st June 2014 (AU)
Published by: Pan Macmillan
Genre: Historical Thriller
Source: Library
Pages: 410
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Even a pawn can become a queen. 

 The year is 1546. Suleiman the Magnificent, the powerful and feared Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issues an invitation to every king in Europe:


 The English delegation - led by esteemed scholar Roger Ascham - journeys to the glittering city of Constantinople. Accompanying Ascham is his pupil, Bess, who is about to bear witness to events she never thought possible. For on the first night of the tournament, a powerful guest of the Sultan is murdered, and against the backdrop of the historic event, Ascham is tasked with finding the killer. Barbaric deaths, unimaginable depravity and diplomatic treachery unfold before Bess's eyes, indelibly shaping her character and determining how she will perform her future Queen Elizabeth I.
Like Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly is one of those prolific authors I've always thought to try, but didn't know where to start! After The Tournament came recommended, and seeing it was historical fiction, there was no question that I had to give it a chance. This thrilling tale hones in on the life of a teenage Elizabeth I, where she is exposed to political intrigue and a series of ghastly murders during the chess tournament in 1546 set at the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

The object of chess is to checkmate the king. But curiously, while the king is the crux of the game, he is the most impotent piece on the board. Even pawns can become queens and every other piece can move more than one square. And so the king in chess is like a king in life: his continued reign depends upon keeping his castles intact and his subjects onside. He is hostage to his people's continued happiness. 

It's no wonder that Reilly has become known as one of the greats when it comes to writing solid action, and here he's balanced it with a well-researched foundation to make the plot realistic. Of course, there is always some creative license involved, but it was useful to read in the interview at the end of the book with the author what inspired him to tell this story. From the explanations of the architecture and opulence of the palace, to how the games of chess play out in the grand setting of Hagia Sophia, Reilly's ability to create a sense of place makes its mark here. While the writing style is often pragmatic, in a story like this there's no time for the flowery prose I've come to appreciate in other historical fiction from Kate Forsyth for example. That being said, for a book like this, which doesn't shy away from graphically exploring the sexual politics at play in the Sultan's inner circle, or the gruesome murders of both Cardinals and nobles, there is never a dull moment.

I had often wondered what had caused this profound change in my friend and now I knew. Sometimes we must go away to discover things about ourselves. Sometimes we go away with the wrong people. Sometimes we go away with the right teachers. 

Behind the drama in Constantinople is a novel exploring the coming of age of a future queen. The extracts of the rules of chess and the different roles of the pieces were a wise move to include between the chapters. Serving more as a mere reference point for those not familiar with the game, they offered a clever parallel to the politics of power in real life at the time. The bond between the chivalrous Robert Ascham and Elizabeth brought some warmth to the novel where a murderer on the loose and corrupt practices were rife. Seeing how she brought her own sense of curiosity, bravery and loyalty to her mentor and friend Elsie showcased Reilly's ability to balance both plot progression and character development to make the best of both.


This year has so far been one for stepping outside my usual reading habits, and I'm glad I've continued that and picked up The Tournament. Though I didn't have any preconceptions of Matthew Reilly's writing, it's easy to see why he's reached such acclaim. If any of you have any recommendations on where to go next with his books from here, let me know!