Historical romance is nothing new or revolutionary; in fact it is one of the most popular subgenres under the romance umbrella. What is new and exciting is when an author takes a period of history not often used as the backdrop to their story. This is the case with Tournament of Shadows, a blend of romance, espionage and peril set during The Great Game of the 18th Century.
Tournament of Shadows does not feel like a romance novel. The constant fear and startling violence do not allow it to be read as such. And yet, the romance and connection between Gabriel and Valentin is as organic and captivating as the plot is thrilling. The romance between two enemies is a trope repeated constantly throughout time, from Romeo and Juliet to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Gabriel and Valentin do not come across as star-crossed lovers either. Rather, they are two traumatised men, sent on what basically amount to be suicide missions by their countries, who find a third option together.
The sex in this novel is erotic, sure, but again it is not romanticised. The perilous effect of Bukhara is revealed in the physical form of both men, and suspicion remains even as they give in to desire. With the novel written from Gabriel’s perspective, their early encounters have a certain darkness to them, as it is only in the very late stages of the novel that Valentin’s intentions and loyalties come to light.
The character of the Emir may be a stereotypical megalomaniac, but that works in this novel due to the fact that he is rarely, if ever seen. The Emir’s decisions and punishments are passed down by others, his threatening presence almost God-like. This is in stark contrast to the character of Akmal, Gabriel’s friend who keeps Gabriel and Valentin hidden. What is so interesting about Akmal is the fact that as a devout Muslim in 19th Century Asia, the sexuality of the two protagonists is of no consequence to him, as he owes Gabriel his life. This only serves to reinforce the central conflict of the book, as loyalties, beliefs and alliances can change. Your enemy can also be your hero, your lover, your salvation.
S.A. Meade’s prose is enthralling to read, with lyrically constructed sentences and painstaking research adding authenticity to the novel. The sex scenes are erotic and tantalising, the violence horrific, and the adventure dangerous and unrelenting. Tournament of Shadows is a novel that straddles genres, and produces something remarkable in the process.