The Tournament

Written by Matthew Reilly
Review by Jeanne Greene

England, 1543. Elizabeth Tudor is 13 years old and, as third in the line of succession, vulnerable to the political intrigues that surround the throne. In this original novel, her tutor Roger Ascham sees an opportunity to get young Elizabeth, a chess aficionado, out of harm’s way by attending a chess tournament – at the Sultan’s Palace in Constantinople.

Elizabeth can’t participate. Chess is a man’s game. She and Ascham accompany the English champion on the long journey across Europe. Travelling incognito, Elizabeth learns a number of useful things, such as how to buy food, never to miss a chance for the loo, and to run when outnumbered. By the end of the trip, she is confident and ready to explore.

The palace of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is no place for an innocent young woman. Ascham discovers that the chess games are rigged, and Elizabeth finds the body of a murdered man. More deaths follow. When Elizabeth ventures into the depths of the palace, she witnesses brutality, nudity, and rape. (Because of the explicit detail, the author cautions, this is not a book for young readers.) Although she and Ascham discover the identity of the murderers, the young woman is visibly hardened afterward.

According to The Tournament, Elizabeth never forgets her experience in the Sultan’s palace – not as a girl, and not as a Queen who chooses independence over marriage and revenge over mercy. This, of course, is fiction. To learn how the real Elizabeth became a formidable monarch, there are plenty of good biographies (see for a list). The Tournament, however, is a clever, well-plotted novel inspired by history, which is fun for historians as well as general readers.