What the blurb says: “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. Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s teacher and mentor in the art of power and politics, is determined to keep her out of harm’s way. When an unprecedented invitation arrives from the Sultan of Constantinople, to an assembly of the finest players of chess from the whole civilised world, Ascham resolves to take Elizabeth with him.
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 …”
It’s not often that a historical thriller, or any thriller for that matter, comes with an adult content warning on the front page. But this one does, and for good reason.
Although the story focuses on the thirteen year old Princess Elizabeth, it is introduced by her lifelong friend, Gwinny, as she tells the reader about a tale told to her by Elizabeth when she was on her deathbed. From thereon until the last chapter the story is told in Elizabeth’s words, telling of the wonders and horrors she witnessed on the trip she took with her tutor Roger Ascham.
The first hint of foul play comes as the group from England – Roger Ascham, the king’s chess player – Mr Giles, Elizabeth and her friend, Elsie, and Elizabeth’s chaperones – Mr & Mrs Ponsonby – near the city of Constantinople. Mrs Ponsonby falls ill from poison, confining her to bed and her husband to her side. Ascham, Giles, Elizabeth and Elsie continue into the city, but at the palace they find more danger. A serial killer has been terrorising the city, and at the opening ceremony for the tournament a cardinal is found mutilated. The Sultan asks Ascham to investigate the crime. He agrees, allowing Elizabeth to work with him. But as they start to uncover the secrets behind the murders they find evidence of shocking depravity and more people start to die.
As you might expect from a novel centring round a chess tournament, strategy, logic and power are strong themes throughout the story. There is also a lot of sex, and this is where the adult content warning comes in, as some of these scenes involve underage children and highlight how they are used and discarded by some characters at the palace.
Ascham is a smart and likable character, with more than a touch of Sherlock Holmes about him. Elizabeth is a curious and intelligent narrator with echoes of Dr Watson. She’s bold and courageous, but not driven to reckless fancy like her friend and companion on the trip, Elsie. Elsie is a fun-loving, but ultimately tragic character, who freely engages in the orgies held by the Crown Prince, not understanding the politics and power at play until it is too late.
This is the fastest paced historical novel I’ve ever read. There are numerous twists and turns throughout the story, and although the settings are clearly drawn and atmospheric there are no lengthy descriptions holding up the action.
I especially loved the tie-in between the quoted passages from ‘ Chess in the Middle Ages’ about the different chess pieces, and the chapters (and central characters) that followed, for example the references to the origins of the chess piece ‘The Bishop’ tying in with the action involving the cardinals.
A must-read for historical crime fiction fans and for all those who love a good mystery.
[Many thanks to Orion for my copy of The Tournament]