This is my first Matthew Reilly book. I'm not really a fan of thrillers, so I've never been tempted to read one before. I might read a few more now, as this one was great fun. It interested me for two reasons. The first was being told it was basically a cosy murder mystery, my favourite genre. And the second was the setting – years ago I saw a Suleiman the Magnificent exhibition which left me fascinated with the man and his empire.
Queen Elizabeth, on her deathbed, narrates a story from her youth, of a journey she took to Constantinople with her tutor Roger Ascham and a few others, to attend a chess tournament hosted by the Sultan Suleiman. Every king in Europe and the East has been invited to send their champion to compete in the grand event.
One of the guests is murdered on the eve of the tournament, and the Sultan asks Ascham to discretely investigate. Ascham and Elizabeth get caught up in a complex web of intrigue, with the body count steadily climbing and a few other plots thrown into the mix. The side story of Elizabeth's bimbo companion Elsie and her determined enjoyment of all the entertainments offered in Suleiman's court add to the amusement of the story, at least at first.
I like the use Reilly made of chess in this story, with the "extracts" from
Chess in the Middle Ages by Tel Jackson spaced throughout the book to explain the history of each piece and their importance to the game. Each of these extracts provides a hint of what will be important in the next section of the book. I suspect
Chess in the Middle Ages is part of the fiction created by Reilly (but didn't actually check on this), partly because the extracts so perfectly fit plot points, and partly because it isn't listed as a source at the end of the book, while other books on chess are.
However, I thought Reilly was a little heavy handed with labouring the point that Elizabeth's experiences on this trip and her first observations of sexual politics contributed directly to her decision when she became queen to never marry and remain the Virgin Queen. Yeah, I got it after the tenth or so mention, I didn't need it reinforced every chapter. This might have been effective if it were a little subtler.
I also thought Reilly was a little heavy handed with the punishment of every character who strayed from a highly moral path. While I won't quibble with the outcome for the paedophile priests, I thought Elsie didn't deserve the treatment she got. Her behaviour basically harmed no one, and it seemed that everyone she encountered enjoyed her company. Having decided to titillate readers with the 'Elsie scenes', it seemed like Reilly then decided that those scenes affronted morality and needed to harsh judgement. Worse, it was only Elsie who was punished. The Crown Prince, whose behaviour was actually appalling, escaped unscathed. We find out from the postscript that he had a humiliating military defeat much later in life, but that probably wouldn't be of much satisfaction to poor Elsie.
Overall this was an entertaining book, one I'd recommend to anyone wanting a historical murder mystery to enjoy, or just a light-hearted romp.
When we first started this website in January we made a list of reading categories. In one of the earliest versions of that list we included
Guilty Pleasures. We imagined they would be the kind of books that, when you were caught reading them, you’d smile and explain you were just taking a break from worthier offerings. Maybe it was a trashy romance or a sensational spy thriller that made no demands on the grey matter. For me, I imagined Matthew Reilly making that list. I was originally introduced to Matthew Reilly by students who told me he was the best author in the world. They were reading Ice Station. I decided to give him a go. After all, it had been a student who introduced me to Terry Pratchett in the early nineties.
But Matthew Reilly isn’t a writer of the calibre of Pratchett. Ice Station turned out to be fun, but his writing is basic as are his characterisations. Reading Reilly, I found, was like watching an action movie or playing a fast-paced computer game. It swept you along, but left you little to think about. Nevertheless, over the years, I would dip back into Reilly’s work. Apart from Ice Station, I also read Area 7, Scarecrow, Hell Island, Seven Ancient Wonders and The Great Zoo of China. I bought a few more, but I had convinced myself I was buying them for my sons who were becoming teenagers. The truth was, buying them had become an act of completionism. I’ve got a few unread Reilly’s now.
This week, with little time to read and my mind on other things, I decided I needed something mindless again. So, I plucked The Tournament from my shelf.
This long introduction is to say that I do have some experience of Matthew Reilly’s work and have come to expect a certain style of book from him. He gives me the impression of being well-read and his books well-researched. The plots usually centre on some historical pretext, much like Indiana Jones. They involve adventure, danger and traps that seem custom designed like a theme park ride. The stories have clearly defined heroes and bad guys. There is usually a kid or some child surrogate who is central to the meaning of the action, but needs protection. Their presence allows the narrative to become sentimental, a result, I think, of clumsy attempts by Reilly to pluck at the reader’s heart strings and give the overblown action sequences emotional depth. It usually doesn’t work. In addition, Reilly tries to invest you in his two-dimensional characters with simple tropes to differentiate them from the mindless and expendable enemies. Reilly’s writing is best when he indulges in huge action sequences, although there is a feeling, the more you read him, that his attempts to top himself result in overblown farce.
With The Tournament one gets the feeling that Reilly has tried to shift onto a slightly different track. The author’s note at the beginning is telling:
This novel also contains subject matter of an adult nature. The author recommends that it be read by mature readers. This was the first Matthew Reilly I read that had detailed sex scenes, and not just between couples. The sex scenes are essential to the story and Reilly’s attempt to give the young Elizabeth some experience that explains her decision to remain single; to become the
Virgin Queen. It’s evident that this is what the story is meant to achieve, although an author interview at the end of the novel makes the intention unambiguous.
What also sets this novel apart from Reilly’s usual fare is that it is a cosy detective novel. Cosy detective fiction was most popular in England and Agatha Christie’s novels are its most well-known example. But the novel begins much as you would expect an historical fiction to begin by speculating upon an unknown gap in the life Elizabeth Tudor. Reilly points out that not as much is known of Elizabeth’s early life, possibly because she was third in line to the throne. This gives him the artistic license to send her on a journey to Constantinople in the year 1546, attended by her teacher, Roger Ascham, a friend, Elsie, and Mr Giles, England’s Chess champion. Sulieman the Magnificent, the sultan of Constantinople, is holding a chess championship for players from across Europe, and at stake is national pride.
Once in the sultan’s palace it soon becomes apparent that they have entered a world of intrigue. There is an early attempt to poison Mr Giles and it seems the chess competition will not be as fair as one might expect. Added to this, Cardinal Farnese is found dead before the competition even begins, and the Sultan engages Ascham to find out who the murderer is, much like a modern-day Poirot.
I couldn’t help but think of Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose as I read. It has all the same elements: the historical setting, the murder set against the religious backdrop of the era, and a learned amateur investigator. This book is not as lexically dense as Eco’s novel. It also doesn’t stray too far into the theological debates of its day as Eco allowed his book to do. The story is set against the background of the schism in the Catholic church, as well as the schism in Islam between the Shiite and Sunni sects, but Reilly only throws up a hasty backdrop rather than immersing his reader in theological debate or detailed exegesis. Having thought of Eco’s book it wasn’t surprising to find Reilly refer to it in the author interview after the story. Most of what he does is usually on the surface.
In fact, to the extent that Reilly does consider his mise en scene, it is firmly within a modern context. His discussion of Islam focuses on modern Western discussions about the religion: about the veiling of women and their social position, for instance, or the threat of a resurgent Islam, to the West. Added to this, Reilly’s portrayal of Catholic priests is heavily influenced by the revelations of child sex abuse in our own period, although he points out that the problem had been written about from the earliest times of the church. I got the sense, as always when I read Reilly, that all this was well researched, but that the narrative was presenting a fairly simplistic and narrow view of history and the issues raised.
I think Reilly’s characters are morally simplistic, as well. Rarely are they anything other than what they appear to be, unless the author has already signalled they are under suspicion. These kinds of characters normally step out of the shadows to reveal themselves as unambiguous baddies, or, like the Sultan, too powerful for that kind of thing to be meaningful. Characters like Ascham are always righteous and wise and they exist in a sexless universe in which their baser instincts are denied or rendered irrelevant. The closest this book comes to breaking that rule is in a moment in which Elizabeth, who is our first-person narrator, considers the loss Ascham is to overly fastidious English women:
With his soft round features and his big nose, Mr Roger Ascham may not have been considered fetching by the ladies of London, but with his razor-sharp mind, his kind heart and his extraordinary ability to see things through other people’s eyes, as far as I was concerned, he was the most beautiful man in the whole world. All those silly girls who had rejected Roger Ascham’s invitations to dance would never know what they had missed out. (315-316)
as far as I was concerned that suggests Elizabeth – now on the precipice of womanhood – is attracted to Ascham. But, of course, she imagines Ascham’s invitations to women being in the nature of a public dance and nothing more salacious. In the end, Elizabeth can characterise him in her own mind as nothing more than chivalric:
My teacher. My Knight. My Protector.
In fact, the kind of characters who indulge their sexual proclivities only court trouble. Whether it is characters like Elsie, who wants to lure the Crown Prince into bed, or like Cardinal Cardoza, who indulges in sexual perversities.
The story itself is a very competent cosy detective fiction. Reilly seems to know the genre well. The next murder victim turns up right on cue, and the plot has all the twists and turns you might expect. The resolution even makes sense.
I also had Roger Ascham and the King’s Lost Girl available as an audio book as I read this book. I picked it up for free some time ago. It was written as a prequel. It can also be downloaded for free from Matthew Reilly’s website. I listened to this short story when I was close to the end of The Tournament. It’s about seventy pages long and forms a backstory that is mentioned briefly in the novel. It is told to establish Ascham’s credentials for investigating the murder. I found it entertaining to listen to while I was walking. It introduces the main characters and adds flesh to the story that is only outlined in the novel. It also has a funny scene with Henry VIII at the beginning. Naturally, given its length, the story lacks the complexity of a novel, but it’s well worth listening to.
On balance, I would recommend The Tournament to anyone who likes crime fiction. I think Matthew Reilly has done a good job here, and he avoids some of the sensationalism and over-sentimental scenes that characterise some of his other books. I think this was a more mature, restrained effort, and because it was a guilty pleasure, I naturally enjoyed it.