Wednesday, May 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Iron King by Maurice Druon

I love historical novels that plop me right down in the middle of serious history. I like quieter novels too. And I enjoy novels that sidestep the history that’s going on in the background to present a nice love story or mystery. But I really love historical novels where the history is the focus, even if there’s a little embellishment of the facts to enliven the story. (It is historical fiction, after all.) So I’m thrilled to have come across Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series. These French historical novels set in the Middle Ages begin with Philip the Fair and the demise of the Knights Templar and take the reader through to the start of the Hundred Years War.

These books are more than fifty years old but the English translations are being re-released with a foreword and recommendation by George R.R. Martin, who calls them the "original Game of Thrones." How’s that for marketing? I haven’t watched any of the show and although we have the books (my son is a huge fan), I’m daunted by the investment of time it will take to read them. So if I can read the "original" instead–and these books are historical novels. . .there’s no contest.

Book One, The Iron King, was written in 1955. It focuses on events surrounding the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay. The Templars were branded heretics, were forcibly disbanded, and their immense wealth was confiscated by Philip the Fair, King of France, in cahoots with his Pope, Clement. Aiding Philip in this and in all things was his Keeper of the Seals and Secretary-General, Guillaume de Nogaret. As Jacques de Molay is burned at the stake, he curses the king, pope, and secretary-general, announcing they will be dead within the year. He then curses the king’s line through the thirteenth generation.

While this is going on, there is abundant political intriguing and scandal within the court. An interwoven plotline is that of Robert of Artois, who feels he has been robbed of his inheritance in the County of Artois which was given to his aunt, Mahaut, Countess of Burgundy. Mahaut had a claim to the same land but the reason she won her suit was that she married her daughters to two of the king’s sons and her cousin to the third. Robert of Artois will stop at nothing to see the princesses ruined and Mahaut disgraced.

Luckily for Robert, he is on friendly terms with Philip the Fair’s daughter, Isabella, who is married to King Edward II of England (to her misfortune.) Isabella despises her sisters-in-law and is only too happy to help Robert in his schemes. (Also luckily for Robert and Isabella, the princesses are unfaithful wives and not very discreet.)

There is a lot to keep track of. Scenes change rapidly and the plots move right along. This is old-fashioned historical fiction and it’s translated from the French, so there is some clunkiness to the prose. An omniscient narrator jumps in offering his two cents every now and then in a fairly obtrusive way. And yet, it’s such a great tale that I got lost in it and didn’t mind that it wasn’t prettily written. Normally, I want well developed characters and expect the character development to help drive the plot. This novel is much more plot oriented, populated by numerous characters that we don’t get opportunity to explore in much depth. Still, I found The Iron King a quick and enjoyable read and I definitely plan to continue with the series. I’m eager to watch the history unfold.