Like many SFF readers, I first heard of Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings series when George R. R. Martin claimed that it was the original Game of Thrones. I wasted no time and got my hands on the first two installments and promised myself to read the first volume as soon as possible. So it's really no surprise that The Iron King ended up in my suitcase when I flew to the Middle East. The foreword of this latest edition was written by Martin and it appears that readers have a lot to look forward to:
The Accursed Kings has it all. Iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin, and swords, the doom of a great dynasty. . . and all of it (well, most of it) straight from the pages of history. And believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and the Plantagenets. Whether you're a history buff or a fantasy fan, Druon's epic will keep you turning pages. This was the original game of thrones. If you like A Song of Ice and Fire, you will love The Accursed Kings.
Here's the blurb:
‘This is the original game of thrones’ George R.R. Martin From the publishers that brought you A Game of Thrones comes the series that inspired George R.R. Martin’s epic work. France became a great nation under Philip the Fair – but it was a greatness achieved at the expense of her people, for his was a reign characterised by violence, the scandalous adulteries of his daughters-in-law, and the triumph of royal authority.
The backdrop of this tale is France under the rule of the Iron King, Philip the Fair. Cold and handsome, he governs his kingdom with an iron hand. And yet, for all of his power and brilliance, for all that he is the most important monarch in Europe and the king who controls the Pope like a puppet, Philip cannot rule his own family. His sons are fairly weak and their wives adulterous, and his only daughter is married to an English king who prefers the company of men over his wife. The story begins with Philip the Fair at the height of his power. For the last few years, the Iron King has persecuted the wealthy and influential Knights Templar in order to confiscate their lands and riches. But when he sentences the Grand Master of the Order and his closest advisors to be burned at the stake, Philip the Fair will draw upon himself a curse that will destroy his dynasty. Maurice Druon has an eye for historical details, and the narrative truly comes alive as you read along.
The translation is very good, though it is sometimes literal and that creates an odd turn of phrase here and there. Instead of relying on massive info-dumps, the author opted for footnotes. Hence, instead of having long paragraphs of information bogging down the narrative, one just needs to go to the back of the book to learn more about those historical notes. This helps maintain a very fluid pace throughout the novel. And since The Iron King weighs in at a little more than 300 pages, this is the kind of book you'll get through in just a few sittings.
The structure of the novel revolves around a number of disparate POVs which allows readers to witness what is taking place through the eyes of a variety of protagonists. This generates more emotional impact, as you see the web of scandal and intrigue which gradually weaves itself around Philip the Fair from both sides of the conflict. And although this is essentially a dark tale of betrayal, the often amusing POV of young Lombard Guccio Baglioni helps create a bit of a balance with the darker and uncompromising elements of the story arc.
There are indeed a lot of resemblances between The Iron King and GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire. The family rivalries, the politicking, the betrayals and back-stabbings; it's all there. Although there are some mysticism and magic to a certain extent, this is probably the biggest difference between Druon's The Accursed Kings and Martin's magnum opus. Still, The Iron King reads almost like a fantasy novel, with definite shades of grimdark throughout. And considering this work was first published in 1955, I must admit that it has aged rather well and is as easy to read as any contemporary novels on the shelves today.
For all you people looking for something similar to GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire in style and tone, if not in scope or vision, Maurice Druon's The Iron King is definitely for you! Even better, the digital edition of the book, at least in North America, can still be downloaded for only 1.99$ here.