Review: The Iron King (The Accursed Kings, Book 1) / Author: Maurice Druon / Publisher: Harper Voyager / Release Date: January 3rd 2013
George R.R. Martin cites this novel and its sequels – originally published in France in the 1950s – as a major influence upon A Song of Ice and Fire. So no wonder his publishers, Harper Voyager, have dusted them off and started reissuing them. But note, what we have here isn't a fantasy cycle (no dragons, no direwolves, no White Walkers), but rather an historical saga with a tinge of the occult and quite a bit of royal rumpy-pumpy.
The Iron King is set in the early 14th Century, in the reign of Philip IV. A formidable figure, he's a progressive who has dragged France out of the feudal era, centralizing power, expanding the country's borders and bulldozing over anyone who stands in his way or has anything he wants (such as coin for his cash-strapped treasury). He has but one Achilles heel – his children. Two of his three adult sons are being cuckolded by their sex-mad wives, a fact which his jealous daughter, Isabella, Queen of England (who isn't getting any because her husband Edward has a notorious fondness for rough trade), is determined to expose at any cost.
Along with an aggrieved baron, Robert of Artois, she hatches a plot to catch the adulteresses red-handed, and it's the unfolding of this scandal which is the primary concern of the novel. Meanwhile, another group who are having a torrid time of it are the Knights Templar. Originally of a wealth and influence to rival the throne, they have been brought low by Philip, and, in one of the book's grisliest set-pieces, their Grand Master, Jacques Molay, is publicly burnt at the stake. Just before the flames engulf him, the old man cries out a curse upon the king and his progeny – and from that moment, nothing seems to go right for the royal household. Could the curse be having its effect?
This is a brisk, compact story, with a cast of entertainingly amoral characters. There's intrigue, brutality and some perversely racy moments (while Jacques Molay burns, the sex-mad wives have an orgy in a tower room overlooking the scene of execution). But yet it all seems a bit anaemic and lacking in immediacy. The problem is Druon's style, which is too dryly elegant for its own good, holding you at a distance from all the illicit love-making and confessions under torture. (Or maybe the translation's to blame: like the book, it dates from the '50s, and could perhaps have benefited from some sexing up for modern tastes.) That said, The Iron King is still very enjoyable, especially when seen through the prism of Game of Thrones and The Tudors, and many will be tempted deeper into the series.