Review: The Iron King by Maurice Druon

Saturday, March 16, 2013
Title: The Iron King
Author: Maurice Druon
Genre: historical fiction
Series: The Accursed Kings #1
Pages: 275 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: first in 1955, reissued several times, newest expected March 26, 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 4.5/5

“Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”

The Iron King – Philip the Fair – is as cold and silent, as handsome and unblinking as a statue. He governs his realm with an iron hand, but he cannot rule his own family: his sons are weak and their wives adulterous; while his red-blooded daughter Isabella is unhappily married to an English king who prefers the company of men.

A web of scandal, murder and intrigue is weaving itself around the Iron King; but his downfall will come from an unexpected quarter. Bent on the persecution of the rich and powerful Knights Templar, Philip sentences Grand Master Jacques Molay to be burned at the stake, thus drawing down upon himself a curse that will destroy his entire dynasty…

A fascinating look at the events during the reign of France's Philip IV, and which directly led to the Hundred Years War between England and France. A bit dry, but long on detail and intrigue, and with an impressively large cast, The Iron King's influence on later novels, across genres, is undeniable. Widely read and recognized, Druon's epic work has been published and republished in the 50 years since it first came to be, but its story is as fresh and fascinating as ever. Anyone who enjoys descriptive and detailed historical fiction about France, England and the Hundred Years' War will find a lot to enjoy here.

Much has been made of its particular impact on the popular fantasy world of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (or A Game of Thrones if you're solely a fan of the tv show). Spanning seven volumes, with a large, disparate cast - from kings to bankers to heretics - the numerous parallels between Druon and Martin's work are easy to spot. While there are (sadly) no dragons to be found in the Iron King, there are she-wolves, betrayals, family curses, torture, court intrigue, and ambition to keep things interesting. Historical fiction is at its best when it makes you curious about the people and times portrayed, and Maurice Druon captures these particular times and these complex people so well, it's hard not to be inquisitive about them once the novel is over.

A Game of Thrones has rival families: The Starks and the Lannisters. The Iron King has the royal rival families of the French Capets and the English Plantagenets. George R. R. Martin wasn't lying when he said his Starks and Lannisters had nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets. Both families are filled with fools, ambitious men, capable and deceptive women, and more. While the first Accursed Kings book lacks the amount of sheer drama that A Game of Thrones packs into one novel, it is admittedly much shorter (by hundreds of pages!). But, thankfully, the author manages to infuse those too-short 275 with enough machinations and manipulations to make Littlefinger himself proud.

A Game of Thrones has the stalwart and rigidly serious Ned Stark. The Iron King has the severe and authoritarian Philip "the Fair" IV of France. Both men are descended from a noble and respected lineage (Ned - Brandon the Builder; Philip - Saint Louis aka Louis IX of France) and both take their responsibilities as leaders very seriously. The comparisons between the two are inevitable for those that have read both works, and it's easy to see how Ned was inspired (and improved upon) Druon's French king. Ned is easier to like, and more personable than the more remote and dispassionate Philip, but they are two men cut from the same cloth.

A Game of Thrones has a family matriarch with steel and determination in Catelyn Tully. The Iron King has Isabella, She-Wolf of France (and reigning Queen of England with Edward II). You may know her best (and inaccurately) as William Wallace's weepy lover in the 1995 movie Braveheart, but that film does her character a disservice. Cold, calculating, and highly intelligent, Isabella and her actions have more of an impact on the history of two countries than one would guess. Much like Catelyn, Isabella has goals and ambitions of her own - for her children, she will start a war that will kill thousands of people before it is all said and done. Both Isabella and Catelyn are remote and hard to like and can be traced as the imitators of huge struggles, but each are thoroughly fascinating to read.

A Game of Thrones has Cersei Lannister, a woman determined to have the love she wants regardless of the constraints society - and marriage - would put upon her. The Iron King has Marguerite of Burgundy, who, like Cersei, is unfaithful (and eventually found out) to her royal husband, which casts the paternity and thus the rights of her children in serious doubt and helps set off the series of dynastic disputes. SPOILER for later ASOIAF novels: And, like the Lannister lioness, Marguerite finds herself imprisoned against her will, without hope of freedom or redemption. Cersei may be easier to label as outright evil rather than selfish and short-sighted, but the similarities between the two women are apparent.

A Song of Ice and Fire is set to be published in a series of seven novels. Druon's series The Accursed Kings is a seven volume work. They are hard to come across, especially in English, but Harper Collins seems to be in the long process of republishing them in 2013. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the day I can continue this series and see how it all plays out in Druon's version of the Hundred Year's War.

The story that has begun to unfold here in the first novel continues in book two, The Strangled Queen. If it is anything like its predecessor I will be a big fan.

1 comment:

  1. While I have no interest in reading the Martin novels, this one does interest me!


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