It’s 1546 and a spectacular event is taking place in Constantinople: The great Sultan Suleiman is hosting a chess tournament to which every king of the known world is invited to send his champion. 13-year-old Princess Elisabeth is offered the chance to travel to this wonderful place, together with her teacher Roger Ascham and the English champion Giles. She is also accompanied by her 17-year-old friend Elsie, who has a keen interest in men. Shortly after the tournament’s begun, a murder is committed and Ascham is ordered by the Sultan to solve this mystery discretely. This brings Ascham and his young pupil into the dirty world of court conspiracies, the city’s most depressing slums and some of mankind’s most gruesome sins.
Matthew Reilly’s The Tournament opens with this exiting premise and a promising storyline. The two protagonists form a sympathetic team, with Ascham’s cunning and Elisabeth’s innocent but clever mind guiding the reader through an enjoyable read. The murder mystery turns out to be as complex and intriguing as you’d expect from a good crime novel.
It must be said that – to readers with a more than average knowledge of history – many plot elements will come across as far-fetched to say the least. To enjoy the novel fully, one must first be willing put aside the improbability of Elisabeth Tudor travelling to Constantinople, with too small an entourage and too much freedom to walk around in dark caves unchaperoned. However, once the reader dispenses with the need for historical accuracy, what remains is an exotic, rip-roaring adventure.
The author gives a warning in advance that this book contains strong adult content: indeed, several scenes and incidents could shock the reader. No living soul seems safe from the sick inclinations of some characters. It is this dark nature of the events in and around the palace, and Elsie’s nocturnal adventures, that help Elisabeth decide to become a virgin queen.
The author has a tendency to take glimpses into the future. However interesting this might be in light of Elisabeth’s future, it is quite frustrating to notice that the author is intent on referring to political situations of the modern world. I feel that it is rather misplaced that the author has chosen to simply transplant modern issues and fears into his novel – disregarding historical sensibilities. For their time, Ascham and his friends hold a strangely secular view of the world and woman’s rights. In the 16th century, both Christians and Muslims would have found common ground on many subjects. Being deeply religious and living according to religious books and traditions were not strange concepts. Also, the fear of Europe coming under Islamic rule in those days was of a completely different nature. Among historians, there is longstanding consensus on the nature of life under medieval Muslim rule. It was generally benign and permissive towards both Christian and Jewish subjects, and conversion to Islam was never compulsory. Religion remained a private matter – as long as people paid their taxes.
Therefore, Ascham’s grim vision of “reading the Koran at prayer times [in England]” is a rather blunt anachronism. One could argue that the stereotypes produced are prejudiced and anti-religious. Personally I would have favoured a less politicized approach to 16th century issues, which bear little resemblance to today’s headlines.
That being said, the main storyline of the murder mystery and the chess championship with its surprising outcome, are very well worth the read. The book was captivating and as a chess fan I liked the connection between chess and all the intrigues at the palace. For me, never has there been a novel that could at times be so annoying by its historical inaccuracy, but at the same time be so fascinating to the point that I forgot to make dinner!