Druon builds upon what made the first book in this historical fiction series, “The Iron King”, so enjoyable – a keen handle on human psychology, playful sense of dramatic irony to milk the most tension and drama to period-accurate history, skillful and cohesive plotting that somehow make complicated and internecine royal struggles easily understandable.
Unlike plenty of sequels in long series like this, this sequel doesn’t feel like just another chapter in a larger story, arbitrarily bound and heavily dependant on a sequel. There’s a, if not standalone, then at least cohesive arc of the book, and it comes to a natural endpoint where most plot threads and character arcs come to a natural pause (if not end).
Druon’s sense of justice and political leanings are made clearer here, and the way he frames the increasingly fraught political squabbling is more vindicating and engaging than a cooler, more dispassionate portrayal would have been.
”Clearly, upon that day, in many of the churches of France, there were people who sincerely mourned the death of King Phillip, without perhaps being able to explain precisely the reasons for their emotion; it was simply because he was the King under whose rule they had lived, and his passing marked the passing of the years” is as keen an observation on modern celebrity culture as it was for monarchs. ”Like all men who have exercised power for a long time, he had come to identify himself with the country, and to consider every attack made upon him personally as a direct attack upon the interests of the state” is as applicable as ever.
Druon’s more lowkey statements on human nature are well-written as ever – ”You always meet the same people travelling because, of course, it’s always the same people who travel”, ”She was going mad, or making herself mad, which is in itself a form of lunacy”, ”Can I never ask my family, who owe me everything, to do the least thing without their looking sulky?”, “Chance infidelities do not prevent one thinking, indeed rather the contrary, of the person to whom one is being unfaithful; indeed it is the most frequent manner of being faithful that men have”.
While the novel understandably doesn’t feel as, well, “novel” as its predecessor did for me, it’s no less a work, which is a rare enough feat for a sequel in a series as long as this. I give it four treasonous letters, and a trip to Naples.