The Iron King (1955) by Maurice Druon

I came to learn of this series through George R. R. Martin recommending it through going so far as to call it “the original game of thrones”. Martin’s avowed fondness for the series certainly resulted in a lot of new fans, and does invite readers to draw comparisons between Druon’s and Martin’s series, but of course the series stands perfectly well on its own. Martin brought the series to new eyes, but Druon already achieved great success and influence in his own time, just not as much in some of the particular circles Martin usually appeals to. It’s interesting to draw comparisons between “The Accursed Kings” and Martin’s own “A Song of Ice and Fire”, but for all their similarities in subject matter, structure, and tone, they are of different genres, different times, and different minds.

Druon showcases a grounded, insightful view of what makes people tick and the peculiarities of the human experience. He realises all the varied characters of the book in a quiet, understated way that grounds their real-life political actions with relatable human touches. Everyone feels very real and human, and Druon’s observations on life and love (“Like a gambler who doubles his stake, he followed up his fantasies of the past, his vain present, all the time he had wasted, and his former happiness”, “Some people are always dreaming of travel and adventure in order to give themselves airs and an aura of heroism in other people’s eyes”, ”Every man believes to some extent that the world began when he was born and, at the moment of leaving it, suffers at having to let the Universe remain unfinished”, to name a few) feel studied and emotionally truthful rather than any sort of vague faux-philosophical grasping at pretension.

The plot, such as it is, contorts in ways that would feel odd and perhaps even stilted in a work not based in actual reality, but for historical fiction, Druon skillfully draws through-lines through history by tethering the book to specific emotional arcs and character relationships. Guccio’s shifting attitudes toward romance, Phillip’s self-actualisation, the relationship between Isabella and Robert, these are all intriguing, engaging focal points to grasp onto, and all the various workings of history fall into place when the book is grounded in linear developments such as those. Nevertheless, there were times where I, at least, lost focus and found the litany of names, events, and intrigues incomprehensible.

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I appreciated how Druon didn’t write the noble characters in an “ivory tower” sort of way. There’s attention paid to, and empathy made with, the underclasses. This does wonders for both the scope of the storytelling and the contextualisation of the themes at play (I find it much easier to invest in squabbling nobles playing petty politics when it’s clear the author isn’t just interested in such interactions for their own sake). I also came to really enjoy the way Druon consistently “spoiled” moments by revealing historical outcomes of various decisions. It feels disarming, taking the wind out of the sails of the present narrative, but adds a sort of feeling of deterministic inevitability that, personally, I felt framed the story in such a way as to be making broader comments on the nature of people and politics, rather than “just” portraying the events of these times.

While most arcs close on notes with some finality, the novel very clearly is part of a greater series – it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it were just a single volume in earnest. I appreciated what felt like very deliberate pacing – speedy enough, with the most tangential-feeling chapters generally being “justified” later. It did very much feel like a first novel in a series, so my opinion may shift for the better or worse when I see how the promises of this book are fulfilled in further entries, but taken for its own merits, it was a splendid read. I give it four greyhounds, and a footnote.

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