The Tournament by Matthew Reilly
I have really enjoyed Matthew Reilly's novels over the past few years: his over-the-top mix of adventure, action, one-liners, one-dimensional characters... it is a brilliant formula for anyone with a few boring hours to while away on a plane, train or "other" long journey.
The novels always reminded me of Schwarzenegger in "Commando", a film which made Hollywood realise that action heroes really, really need to reload their weapons to give some idea of plausibility. Reilly's books possessed the same enjoyable, ridiculous escapes from death by the most ludicrous means possible. A reader suspended belief entirely to enjoy them...and enjoy them we did.
So, it was with enthusiasm I downloaded this, expecting more of the same with a vaguely historical setting. As I read it, my dismay deepened, my expectations were rudely kicked aside. I found a young Princess Elizabeth Tudor gallivanting off to Constantinople with her teacher, Roger Ascham, and her promiscuous playmate, Elsie. All to solve some mysteries so transparent they were almost insulting to the sleuthing genre.
Despite Mr Reilly's attempts to justify his subject matter in his Q & A at the end of the book, the focus on badly written pornographic sex scenes; the need to make the girls involved in these scenes so young it was, frankly, disturbing; the overall depiction of women - as a means of explaining the later character of Queen Elizabeth I - horrendous to the point of misogyny: all these and more made the book very difficult to swallow.
I also found the pseudo-social commentary on religions and governance shoddy. I heard the twenty-first century vernacular of all the characters and found it laughable. I saw the Hollywood-driven description of both the Caliphate and the chess tournament as shoddy rehashing. It all came to a head for me when Michelangelo was cast as a 'good mate', with a jolly demeanour and wincingly bad quips to boot.
The philosophy in the novel was particularly painful. Here's one example that should have had the editor reaching for a red market pen to exclude it:
"Look at Africa. There the native tribes still fight each other with spears and sticks, engaging in raids for food and women. Every time a new tribe wins a battle, society has to start all over again, so there is no progress."
Really? I mean, how prejudiced and colonial stereotypical can you have your characters get, Mr Reilly? Especially as it came from Roger Ascham - a man meant to be a teacher of great learning!
Then there's the castigation of Catholicism depicting all cardinals as sodomites; the accusation that "we are in a strange and unholy land, Bess."; the claim that Cleopatra has "gone down as one of history's greatest whores". Really? There are dozens of examples of 'popular' (and inaccurate) history being spouted as truth. What Reilly needs to understand is that historical novels need to have some adherence to facts to be good; that he cannot make sweeping statements lifted out of a misunderstanding of historical opinions written with a Western eye.
The plot is weak, concerning the murders of several people at the inaugural chess tournament hosted by Sultan Suleman. Roger Ascham is charged with solving them whilst his friend, Giles, competes. He does so simply, through observation. This has the benefit that Bess is shown Reilly's reality of medieval Constantinople, of how to be a good ruler. We end with Reilly declaring "Thus the Moslem sultna's invitational chess championship of 1546 ended... History would never know if it."
Better, I say, if it had remained that way and Reilly hadn't penned this.
Forget historical mystery novels, Matthew. Get back to Scarecrow. Those are good books. This was utterly dire.
The Tournament by Matthew Reilly
Publisher: Orion Jan 2, 2014
This The Tournament book review was written by travelswithacanadian
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