Matthew Reilly is one of my favourite writers of thrillers. He is a master of explosive military adventures and I’ve been glued to the Scarecrow series in particular for years, re-reading several of them. When I heard that Reilly was shifting his focus to tackle historical fiction, I wasn’t just worried, I was also disappointed. But, knowing so well how good a storyteller Matthew Reilly is, I thought I’d give it a go. I bought it on the day it came out (actually, the minute it came out, this is how much I look forward to Reilly novels) and dived in.
The year is 1603. Elizabeth I is on her deathbed but before she breathes her last she wants to confess what really happened during a three-month period in 1546 when she disappeared from court aged just 13. The official reason had been to escape from an outbreak of plague but Elizabeth reveals to her trusted servant that her tutor Roger Ascham had taken her to the East on an adventure. Suleiman the Magnificent had sent out a challenge to the rulers of Europe – kings, popes, dukes – daring them to each send a master player to Constantinople to take part in a grand chess tournament. It is clear that it is not just a title at stake, players would compete for the honour of their rulers, countries and religion against this Sultan poised to break through the borders of Europe and Russia. Henry VIII permits his daughter to travel and so Elizabeth embarks on an adventure with her clever schoolmaster by her side that not only teaches her everything she might want to know about chess, competition and cheating, but also about life and morality and, above all else, how to rule wisely, lessons that will stand her in good stead.
The Sultan’s court is portrayed with every colour, its opulence only just disguising its debauchery and cruelty. But Elizabeth’s eyes are opened to both, through the escapades of her companion and friend Elsie and through the murders that assault the tournament. Ascham is charged with identifying the murderer by the Sultan and Elizabeth is keen to learn from her master how to uncover the hidden nature of the people around her. The giggly breathless accounts by Elsie of her nights of gymnastic sex in the Sultan’s harem might, the novel suggests, be one explanation for the future queen’s lifelong abstinence. No wonder that Elizabeth returned with much on her mind.
This might be a novel about a chess tournament but the chess that matters here is more about how kings, queens, knights, cardinals, priests and pawns manipulate each other – and are manipulated – in the court of the Sultan. The comparison is none too subtle, with chapter headings and extracts from chess manuals directing our attention to different players in the plot.
The Tournament is a novel that caused me a great deal of conflict but first I’ll tell you what I liked about it. Reilly is a fine thriller writer and The Tournament is no exception. It is extremely easy to devour and it is compelling. The pages race through the fingers. If it hadn’t have been for work, I’d have read it in just the one day rather than the two it took. The murder mystery is exciting and gruesome and there is a whole cast of suspects for Ascham and Elizabeth to choose from. The solution is also satisfying. The Sultan’s court is quite bewitching in its description. The character of Suleiman is also very intriguing, as is that of his queen. You can almost smell the heady scents of perfume and spices while marvelling at the silks and gemstones. The cruelty and immorality of this court is very clear, lurking just below the surface, a state mirroring the destitute orphans who live in the grim Roman cisterns below the palace, human prey to the sexual predators who live in luxury above.
What I wish, though, is that this had not been a novel about Elizabeth Tudor or set in 1546. One of my very favourite novels by Reilly (by any writer) is Contest, an utterly engrossing thriller set in the New York State Library. It too tells the story of a game but in this case it is a set of puzzles that our hero and his daughter must solve in direct competition with other teams – at stake is life itself. It’s one of the most exciting novels I’ve read and despite involving a good dose of science fiction it is so easy to accept it and believe it. In The Tournament, the extra element is historical fiction and, unfortunately, I could hardly accept or believe a word of it.
Matters are complicated by the fact that I had read just a couple of days before C.W. Gortner’s superb The Tudor Conspiracy (review to follow very shortly) which also tells a fictional mystery story surrounding the figure of the young Princess Elizabeth but the difference is that Gortner’s novel is seeped in historical knowledge and detail. Characters might act fictionally but their intentions and method ring true. Reilly’s Princess Elizabeth is a mere witness of events, being shocked or helpful on occasion, but it is hard to find Henry VIII’s daughter in this creation. She spends a fair time reflecting on the lessons she has learned about ruling – backed up by sections beginning with some of Queen Elizabeth’s most famous quotes – but history tells us there was more to this figure than the name Good Queen Bess might suggest. Also the influence of her own father (the killer of her mother) seems to have left little impression on this blank slate.
While most of my problems with the historical setting of this novel revolve around the implausibility of Princess Elizabeth, it doesn’t end there. The figure of Elsie is completely preposterous in my opinion, made worse by her main function which is to recount to the fascinated princess in gratuitous salacious detail the minutiae of her nightly sexual exploits. The explicit and repetitive sexual content seems as unnecessary to this novel as the Ponsonbys (the so-called chaperones of the trip). Instead of having something genuine to say about the extreme degradation and humiliation of young women and boys in this world, Reilly goes for titillation instead. The stereotypes are out in force too – immoral cardinals and priests, the oppressive and cruel Muslims, the honourable Christians. The players and winners of the chess game indicate all too well where our moral support should lie. The historical stereotypes might be there but the characters themselves seem far too modern for this 16th-century world.
But one of my biggest issues with The Tournament is the murder mystery itself. While it is an intriguing and exciting story, it is ultimately worthless to investigate murders in this setting where so few are innocent, where most life is held cheap and where kings and queens are murderers. I would also argue that this literary technique of people revealing great secrets on their deathbeds in enough detail to fill a 400 page plus novel is not a good one and it is particularly unsuccessful and unrealistic here.
This, then, was a book that caused me trouble. To be fair, I had a strong feeling I wouldn’t enjoy it from the moment I heard of it and I only bought it because of its author. The quality of his writing meant I couldn’t stop reading it even though it irritated me with every chapter. Reilly writes so well and I look forward very much to him writing again in an area in which he excels. I was very pleased to read in the interview with Reilly that closes this novel that Scarecrow will be back. I very much hope Elizabeth will not.
Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves