It is always with a sense of reluctance that I pick up another historical book. In recent years there has been a trend for authors to try their hand at something new. Literary types show, with disdain, that they too can pen a decent thriller; others sink into crime; some attempt humour. But more and more often, novelists and non-fiction writers are picking on historical stories as though they are the latest indicator of a scribbler’s ability.
And so often they are cringingly dire.
I read Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station some years ago, in the recommendation of an excellent Waterstone’s member of staff, and although it bucketed along at a great rate, it didn’t quite grab me. I enjoyed it, but not in the same all-immersive way that I had enjoyed, say, Dogs Of War or Day Of The Jackal. Perhaps it was the writing style, or my inability to suspend disbelief with some of the ideas he put forward - whatever the reason, it coloured my attitude to his works, and I haven’t read any other books of Matthew’s until now.
This book lasted me two days.
He has taken the concept of Queen Elizabeth I and looked at her when she was a child. In England there was a fresh outbreak of the Plague, and Ascham, her tutor, took Elizabeth with him on a journey for her own safety, in part, but also in order that Ascham could visit Constantinople and see the world’s first chess tournament, held by Suleiman the Magnificent to celebrate his power and authority.
Many themes are covered in this book: sex, power, the relative positions of different rulers in Europe, the dread of the rise of Islam - but all are tied together wonderfully by the central characters and the theme of chess - which after all, is a splendid metaphor for medieval life and royal authority.
It was a surprise when I reached a murder a quarter of the way into the book, but Reilly has depicted a brilliant investigator in Ascham. He has set out the character, his views, his mild manner and his interests with a keen enthusiasm, in much the same way that Eco set out Baskerville. From that point, for me, the book became more focused, but without losing the central interest of the power politics that drove the plot.
There were irritations. For me, as a writer and historian, the idea that Elizabeth’s chaperone would look down on alcohol was not good; the thought that Elizabeth herself would usually be served milk didn’t work; some language jarred (like the Transylvanian who spoke like a Cornwall peasant) - but for once I didn’t really care. The main plot was interesting enough.
For true crime afficionados there is a problem. Although there are suspectsgalore, and their number dwindles with each fresh murder, the resolution of the crimes is based on what the Detection Club would class as a cheat. It’s not the reappearance of a South American twin to whom we have not been introduced, but it’s not too far from it. However, the main plot is strong enough, the explanation convincing enough, that I don’t care. Because the main objective of a story is to engage with the reader. This book did.
Thanks, Mr Reilly. You’ve converted a new reader!