The Iron King by Maurice Druon

The Iron King “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!

20 thoughts on “The Iron King by Maurice Druon

  1. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    I can see the similarities with Game of Thrones – it’s basically medieval politics plus the odd fantasy element, especially at the beginning of the series.
    I think Iron King sounds great, thanks for reviewing it 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I think you might enjoy this book, Sam, as you like both Game of Thrones and historical fiction. I really must give George R.R. Martin a try at some point!

  2. aartichapati says:

    I am always wary when books have comparisons to other books on the cover – it rarely bodes well! I had this on my wish list YEARS ago and could never find it – I’m glad it’s back in print, though I don’t know if I’m willing to start a 7-book series…

    • Helen says:

      I’m very good at starting new series but not so good at finishing them! I really loved this book, though, so I’m definitely planning to read at least the second one.

  3. Caz says:

    I still have old paperback copies of these (from the 80s, maybe?) and although I haven’t read them for a while, was delighted to see they’re being republished. I haven’t read them in the original either (it’s on my to do list!) but I remember enjoying them very much. I knew a little of the history of the period from the English PoV, but not the French, so they were very informative as well. I really must bump this further up my TBR pile.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy re-reading them as much as you did the first time, Caz. I don’t know much about this period from either the English or the French perspective, so I’ve learned a lot from this book and can’t wait for the next one!

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I am often daunted by such epic series of books. For Christmas though I was bought the full (to-date) set of George R R Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire which you say was influenced by Druon. If I manage well with A Song of Ice and Fire I will seriously consider this series as it sounds great, but I will keep your warning in mind that it is not fantasy! I hope you manage to read and enjoy the rest of the series.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s books have never really appealed to me, but I’m starting to think that maybe I should try reading them. This series is less daunting as the books are not very long, even though there are seven of them.

  5. Charlie says:

    You’ve definitely got to be careful when choosing books due to comparisons. It makes sense Martin would want to credit this book, and I suppose the lack of similarities wouldn’t sound as persuasive, but still. It sounds a brilliant book, especially if it keeps going for 7 books, and I can’t help wondering how the language and translation make it differ from what you’re used to (so many historical translations being literary).

    • Helen says:

      I really hope the other books in the series are all as good as this one! It’s a shame that a lot of people seem to have chosen this book based solely on the Game of Thrones comparison, as reading the synopsis does make it clear that it’s historical fiction and not fantasy, so there shouldn’t really be any confusion.

  6. Leander says:

    Thrilled to see a post on this, Helen, as it cropped up in my Amazon recommendations a couple of weeks ago. I was tempted at the time and am more tempted now. I think it’s best to just ignore the Martin reference. It seems as though any vaguely historical, vaguely intrigue-driven courtly story is now to be described as ‘Game of Thrones’ in some light or another. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I definitely agree that it’s usually best to ignore comparisons and recommendations on book covers. Martin himself has named this book as one of his biggest influences, though, so there must be some similarities. I would be interested to hear what you think of it if you decide you can’t resist the temptation!

  7. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    This sounds like a really twisty book with lots of characters – those elements are very like the Martin books so I think some of his fans would like these, as long as they knew about the lack of fantasy. I have a hard time reading books that are so densely packed with plot – I think it probably isn’t for me, but it is good to know about!

    • Helen says:

      I would describe this book as more plot-driven than character-driven, so it maybe isn’t for you if you prefer books with less complex plots. I’m hoping the characters will become more developed as the series goes on.

  8. Lucinda Elliot says:

    Hello, Helen, I’m nominating you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award, the details should be up in about three days,when my present jolly post about The Terror and Guillotines should be over.
    Then, the details should be up if you want to claim.

  9. gaskella says:

    I have an ancient copy of this with a great 1960s garish cover! I might just read it now as your post has piqued my interest. THanks.

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