England, 1546. A young Princess Elizabeth is surrounded by uncertainty. She is not currently in line for the throne, but 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 chess players from the whole civilised world and pit them against each other. Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s teacher and mentor in the art of power and politics, is determined to keep her out of harm’s way and resolves to take Elizabeth with him when he travels to the glittering Ottoman capital for the tournament.But once there, the two find more danger than they left behind. There’s a killer on the loose and a Catholic cardinal has already been found mutilated. Ascham is asked by the Sultan to investigate the crime. But as he and Elizabeth delve deeper, they find dark secrets, horrible crimes and unheard-of depravity. Things that mark the young princess for life and define the queen she will become…

Sometimes all you need is an entertaining easy read, that amuses and compels you by turn, and I think that is what The Tournament achieves in spades! This is a romp in the truest sense of the word, with its easy style, interesting manipulations of historical figures, and more than a touch of sauce about it. Reilly creates an imaginary world filled with richness, colour and vitality, centring on a chess tournament held in the realm of Constantinople, and believe me, I saw the word ‘chess’ in the blurb and thought instant snooze-fest: how wrong I was…

Centring on the young Elizabeth I, when she was a mere stripling of a teenager and way down the pecking order for the throne, she is taken on an adventure to foreign climes by her personal tutor, the enigmatic and charming Roger Ascham. The two enter into the distinctly alien world of Constantinople, accompanying a Mr Giles who is to take part in a champion of champions chess tournament hosted by the Sultan himself with the tournament peopled by a series of very recognisable figures from history, imaginatively gathered by Reilly in this one locale. Yes, there is a little manipulation of historical fact to achieve this- so any history purists look away now- but with the natural wit and brilliant set-ups that Reilly injects into these strange meetings it proves enormous fun. And soon there is a murder. And then more murders, and Elizabeth and Ascham, displaying his innate ability at psychological profiling and crime solving, find themselves in peril- it’s a hoot and at times a very sexy hoot at that. I would say that this book comes with a high ‘raunch-warning’ as Elizabeth’s travelling companion, the comely Elsie, embraces all aspects of this rich and sensual world with alarming regularity and in some detail- so be warned!

But joking aside, this is, beyond the very fun nature of it, a well-crafted book and kept those pages-a-turning. I loved the characterisation of Elizabeth in particular, and the way Reilly manipulates certain situations, so that with the knowledge we have of her, we can see how these experiences could have influenced her monarchy and personal character- in particular to her being unmarried, a skilful political and military tactician, and her general demeanour as queen. Likewise, I felt Reilly really captured the loyalty and intelligence of Roger Ascham, so pivotal throughout Elizabeth’s life, and loved the easy relationship between them. The characterisation generally was top-notch and really brought the more well-known participants in the story to life. As much as I thought the ‘chess’ element would bore me to tears, it was actually quite interesting, with Reilly inserting, at well paced junctures, little vignettes of chess history, that worked really rather well, in tandem with quotes from some of the protagonists themselves. The atmosphere and portrayal of location was colourful and rich, completely capturing for me, the grandeur and moneyed opulence of the Sultan’s palace, but not shying away from the less savoury goings-on, particularly in relation to the Roman Catholic embassy set within the palace grounds. Some things never change it would seem…

So to sum up, what fun The Tournament is! I fair raced through this enjoyable historical romp, with all its quirks, bloody murder and a bit of sauce. There’s enough recognisable historical detail to please most readers, and what Reilly manipulates plays well along the way, heightening the reader’s enjoyment of the book. An engaging and racy read to offset those dark winter nights…

(The Tournament will be available on Kindle 2nd January 2014 and in hardback on January 30th 2014- published by Orion.)

Matthew Reilly wrote his first book, Contest, in 1994 whilst attending the University of New South Wales. It was rejected by every major publishing company. This caused Reilly to self-publish 1,000 copies using money borrowed from his family.  Reilly went to a bookstore in Sydney and asked if he could place the copies on one of their book shelves. They accepted the offer. Very shortly after, the books had sold out and the owner of the bookstore called Reilly to order more books. One copy was read by Pan Macmillan, who immediately signed Reilly up to write Ice Station, which became an international bestseller. Since then, he has been published in over fifteen countries, including Norway, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa, Japan and China. Reilly’s main influences include Michael Crichton, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and possibly Art Bell. www.matthewreilly.com/

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)
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