“This is the original Game of Thrones” it says on the front cover, but anyone picking this book up hoping for an epic fantasy novel is going to be disappointed. The French novelist Maurice Druon may have been George R.R. Martin’s inspiration (I haven’t read Martin’s books so wouldn’t know how strong the influence actually is), but this is definitely not fantasy – it’s an historical fiction novel and an excellent one too. While I think it’s good that Martin’s recommendation is encouraging people to read The Iron King, I do think it was maybe a mistake for the publisher to market the book in this way, as looking through the various reviews on Amazon it seems a lot of people have not got the novel they were expecting and as a consequence The Iron King has ended up with a lower rating than it deserves.
Anyway, now that we’ve established what type of book this is, let me tell you what it’s about! Originally published in the 1950s, this is the first in the seven-volume “Accursed Kings” series and tells the story of a fascinating period of French history. The Iron King of the title is Philip IV of France, who was also known as Philip the Fair. For seven years Philip has been persecuting the Knights Templar who he wishes to destroy because of their power and riches, and he finally succeeds in having their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, burned at the stake. But before the Grand Master goes to his death, he puts a curse on the King and his descendants – “accursed to the thirteenth generation!”
Things soon start to go badly for Philip and his family when it emerges that his sons’ wives are cheating on them with two young courtiers. Philip’s daughter Isabella, who is in a loveless marriage to King Edward II of England, sees an opportunity to bring their adultery to light, with the assistance of her ambitious and vengeful cousin, Robert of Artois, who is forming a plot of his own to reclaim his lands from his hated Aunt Mahaut. It seems that the Grand Master’s curse has been successful…
As this is a novel first published in 1955 and translated from French, it does have a very different feel in comparison to most of the historical fiction novels that are being written today and this was something I really liked about the book. Unfortunately I don’t have the language skills to be able to read it in its original French, but as far as I could tell, the translator (Humphrey Hare) has done a good job and The Iron King was one of the most entertaining historical fiction novels I’ve read for a while. There were so many interesting things to learn about – the origins of the famous ‘Tour de Nesle affair’; the demise of the Knights Templar; the community of Lombard bankers in Paris – and with a plot involving murder, torture, poisonings, court intrigue, and family feuds, there was always something happening.
Don’t worry if you know nothing about this period of French history – I had absolutely no previous knowledge of Philip the Fair and his family before reading this book but that was not a problem at all because this edition of the book makes the story easy to understand and follow. Everything you need to know regarding the historical background, the politics or the causes of feuds and disputes is clearly explained in the notes at the back of the book and the character list at the front helped me remember who everyone was and how they were related to each other. I am now looking forward to the second Accursed Kings book, The Strangled Queen. I hope the publisher will continue to reissue the rest of the series!