Review: The Strangled Queen (The Accursed Kings, Book 2) / Author: Maurice Druon / Publisher: HarperCollins / Release Date: Out Now
The Accursed Kings is a sequence of seven novels dealing with the French monarchs of the 14th century. Originally published back in the 1950s, they number Nicolas Sarkosy and Vladimir Putin among their fans and have been heaped with praise by none other than George R. R. Martin, who cites them as a major influence on A Song of Ice and Fire. In this, the second novel of the series, the mighty Philip the Fair, known as the Iron King, is dead, and the throne has passed to his weakling son Louis X. Competing to hold sway over him are the late king's two most important ministers, the brilliant but lowly born Marigny, who wants to consolidate Philip's modernizing reforms, and the blue-blooded Charles of Valois, who wants to roll France back to a state of feudalism. It's a struggle that can only end in the death and disgrace of one or the other, and in the meantime the whole country threatens to slide into chaos.
Monseigneur of Evreux, a minor character, “always marvelled at the mysterious, unforeseen ways in which human destinies were forged”. This, in a nutshell, is Druon's theme. He presents a vividly coloured tapestry of events, but also flips the tapestry over to show you the tangled knots and threads holding it together. He's brilliant at explaining how the Medieval world functioned, or didn't. One example: Louis X wants his marriage to the scandalously unfaithful Marguerite of Burgundy annulled, but only the Pope can do that for him. Unfortunately, the Pope is dead, and the conclave of cardinals is in no hurry to elect his successor. Louis' emissaries are determined to chivvy them along, but to do that they have to find them first. However, this proves tricky as the wary and elusive cardinals flit from town to town in the region of Avignon, always one step ahead of their pursuers. “I'm chasing cardinals,” one of the emissaries sighs, “and I don't mind telling you they're far from easy game.”
Druon's authorial persona is brisk, precise, scholarly, but worldly too, the voice of a man who knows what it's like to be involved in public affairs (he fought with the Resistance in WWII and served as a government minister). You feel as if you're being led through these labyrinthine events by a guide who's well-informed, unjudgemental and has a twinkle in his eye. The effect is very engaging, especially when, as here, it's married to a tight, cohesive story presented in a succession of sharp, dramatic scenes. HarperCollins are reissuing Humphrey Hare's original translation of The Accursed Kings in a series of small, pretty hardbacks, and it looks set to resume its rightful place as the thinking person's historical saga.