The Iron King by Maurice Druon is a historical novel that is about to be read by a large number of fantasy readers, mostly on the strength of a little quote by one George R.R. Martin on its cover. Ready for it? Here it comes: “This is the original Game of Thrones.”
I have to admire the decision to place this quote at the very top of this book cover, because there is no other way that an almost sixty-year-old historical novel set mostly in 14th Century France would cross over to fantasy fans as successfully as this one is about to. (The fact that fantasy is being used to market historical fiction also speaks to the way popular culture has changed in the last decade or two, but that’s another discussion.)
So. The Iron King is the first novel in a seven book series of historical novels entitled The Accursed Kings (“Les Rois Maudits”) by French author Maurice Druon. The first six novels were originally published between 1955 and 1960; a seventh one, which to my knowledge has never been translated to English, appeared in 1977. The series has been adapted into two separate mini-series, once in the 1970’s and more recently in 2005, although these are supposedly only available in undubbed, unsubtitled French versions. “Very frustrating for English-speaking Druon fans,” as George R.R. Martin says in the Foreword.
The novel’s titular “iron king” is Philip IV, dubbed “The Fair” on account of his legendary good looks, not because he came to be known as a particularly fair ruler. Quite the opposite, actually: he was known for putting the needs of the nation before those of his subjects in spectacular ways: taxing or extorting large chunks of the population, bloodily putting down the ensuing rebellions and riots, expelling the Jews, and crushing the Knights Templar. He’s also the monarch who installed Clement V as the first Avignon pope, thereby not improving his popularity in certain other parts of the world at all.
It’s the Knights Templar affair that provides the impetus for the series’ plot and, at least in Druon’s version of history, the eventual downfall and ruin of many Capetian kings and other power-brokers. For when Philip IV causes the final remaining leaders of the order to be burned at the stake after years of relentless persecution, the Grand Master curses him: “Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”
And so it goes. The Iron King follows the story of Philip the Fair and several members of his extended family and court during an eight month period in 1314. Many of the major events described by Maurice Druon in the novel are based in historical fact. Druon supplements this with several pages worth of notes at the end of the book, providing more details about the actual events of the age. You can argue with the author’s interpretation of history (as I expect some people did and will, vehemently) but regardless, you can find the skeleton of this novel’s plot—as well as several “spoilers” for those unfamiliar with the period—by doing a few simple searches on Wikipedia.
However, despite being based on history, the tone of the novel does actually resemble novels like A Game of Thrones somewhat. Its pages are filled with betrayal and blackmail. Torture and violence abound. Lives are ruined to advance a claim on a territory. The concept of nobility is treated with huge cynicism. (At one point, someone actually says “we have been present today at the demise of Chivalry.”) Everyone looks out for themselves first and foremost. It’s best not to get attached to too many characters. You could possibly argue that this is a grimdark historical novel.
At the same time it’s only fair to warn you that, in many other ways, The Iron King is a very different beast. Characters are much less well-defined than readers of modern fantasy may like, for one. A few of them are sometimes referred to by name, sometimes by title, and sometimes by the territory they control, which may have you paging back to the list of the characters at the front of the book to double-check who is who more than a few times. Even then, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the same well-rounded and fascinating characters as in, say, A Game of Thrones. They’re historical figures defined by their historical actions, and few if any of them ever become real, relatable people.
The book’s narrative voice is also considerably different. Sure, The Iron King switches perspective from chapter to chapter, a technique writers like Martin use with great success to show complex intrigues from various points of view. What’s more jarring is that The Iron King occasionally uses an ominous-sounding omniscient narrator (“But new events were on their way which would change the destinies of them all.”), and this immediately makes it sound more dated. The occasional tendency of characters to explain past events to people who don’t need them explained has the same effect:
“My dear Monseigneur Robert,” Tolomei went on calmly, “when you brought a law-suit against your aunt Mahaut for the inheritance of the County of Artois, I paid the costs. Well, you lost the case.”
“But you know very well that I lost it through dishonesty,” cried Artois. “I lost it through the intrigues of that bitch Mahaut. May she die of it! A thieves’ market! She was given Artois so that Franche-Comté should revert to the Crown through her daughter.
The fact that the language is a bit tame, especially when compared to the subject matter, doesn’t help either: one of the worst insults in the books is “You are an unmitigated rascal!”. Also problematic is the occasionally clunky translation from French, leading to Google Translate-worthy paragraphs: “He was one of the most powerful bankers in Paris and had the manners of a bishop. At all events he assumed them on this occasion because he was speaking to a prelate.”
There’s one more aspect of this novel that may have some readers scratching their heads and/or gnashing their teeth: the level of misogyny on display here. This goes beyond the usual “women are subservient because that’s just how it was in those times.” Actually, several of The Iron King’s female characters are rulers (Isabella, Mahaut) or at least independent agents (Beatrice). It’s just that women are always plotting, or causing the downfall of good men by adultery, or if they haven’t reached that point yet at least actively contemplating it. By my count, there’s only one female character in this novel who‘s not involved in some nefarious scheme at the expense of a man, and that’s a 16 year old girl who is swept off her feet at the sight of the first attractive man who is not one of her brothers. As a whole, The Iron King fails the Bechdel test in such a spectacular way that it’s actually borderline comical. (It also doesn’t help that the attractive physical features of several female characters are alternately described by comparing them to a hound, a cat, and a piece of fruit, or that you occasionally encounter a chestnut like “She found herself fighting an unexpected enemy: tears.”)
So, take The Iron King for what it is: an old-fashioned historical novel written in the 1950’s, not a modern gritty fantasy novel. It’s a child of its time. If you pick this up on the strength of that “original Game of Thrones” quote, you’ll have to make some mental adjustments. Still, the novel features some of the same dynamics as A Song of Ice and Fire, and as Martin says in the Foreword, “the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and the Plantagenets.” If you’re willing to make those mental adjustments, and especially if you’re interested in this historical period, definitely check out The Iron King.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on March 12th, 2013.