Tournament of Shadows by S.A. Meade takes us deep into the heart of the desert where an Irish soldier is on a rescue mission to Bukhara to save two fellow officers who have been captured. Gabriel O’Riordan makes his way into the heart of enemy territory disguised as one of their own—a holy man. On his journey he meets a Russian soldier who is also enroute to make a request of the power hungry and slightly crazy Emir of the land—a much sought after alliance with Russia. Valentin Yakolev is a smart and very nosy companion on the journey and Gabriel fears his cover will be blown before he can somehow persuade the Emir to release his compatriots.
When the two part ways in Bukhara, Gabriel leaves off his disguise and is informed that there is no way he can affect the safe escape of his two brothers in arms for they are being held in the “Ark,” a nearly impenetrable fortress. With time running out, Gabriel decides his last hope will be to contact Valentin and offer himself as payment for Valentin’s aid in asking for the release of the soldiers during his audience with the Emir. Valentin agrees, but things go terribly wrong and not only can Gabriel not save his countrymen, it looks as though Valentin may be lost as well, just when Gabriel was coming to grips with his growing fondness for the man.
Tournament of Shadows had so many good elements right off the bat. Both Gabriel and Valentin were shrouded in mystery and inexorably drawn to each other. In an era fraught with espionage and danger, these two men found themselves lusting after each other and more. Author S.A. Meade established the setting for her novel right away and was so very descriptive in her word choice that I felt myself transported to the desert along with Gabriel. The building relationship between these men was solid and believable. I never felt as though the pacing of the story was rushed until the last quarter of the novel where things began to unravel just a bit.
Up to the point where the two men escape Bukhara I was enthralled with the story. The threat of danger constantly hanging over them was palpable. However, once they made the decision to evade the Emir and run for their lives, I found the story became very disjointed. Each chapter leapt ahead in time and place, often leaving me confused as to how the men got where they were and exactly what significance the chapter had to the overall story. There was what seemed to be a real time discrepancy as well. First Gabriel reflects on his two and a half months travel to Russia. But when he and Valentin part over a seemingly insurmountable conflict, it is only three days travel to the next port. Then later on it is discussed again as so much time passing. I was truly confused by this and the leaping from one vignette to another in each chapter only encouraged the confusion.
Also, the rapid way in which Gabriel not only gives up thoughts of returning to his own homeland, but also forgives Valentin’s past role in wholesale slaughter seemed really contrived. Prior to this last section of the novel, there was such a slow build of events so that you could feel the passion growing between these two men. Now there appeared to be a rapid closing out of the story to attain a happy ever after.
All in all, Tournament of Shadows began as a really tight knit novel with interesting characters and a dangerously delicious plot. Unfortunately, toward the end, this wonderful story began to fall apart and left me wondering what had happened to the trajectory that had been so spot on.