a review by Nalini Haynes
The Iron King by Maurice Druon is the first of seven historical novels first published in the 1950s. My advanced reader copy didn’t have the above text on the cover, it looked more like this (sorry for poor scanner image):
When I received this book, my heart leapt! Another George R.R. Martin book! I didn’t even request it! Oh, hang on… it’s not GRRM… I examined it for a number of minutes in to figure out WTF was going on.
Maurice Druon wrote a series of historical novels starting with the Iron King, whose king was Philip king of France in 1314.
I hear you ask: How could this story have inspired GRRM? I’ve noticed many times that excellent science fiction and fantasy novels often borrow inspiration from either mythology or ancient history. This is the case here: there are numerous similarities in the historical events of the Iron King and the Game of Thrones narrative. Not so much that one is a rip off of the other, just enough that the discerning reader can see germs of ideas from historical events bringing forth creative fruit in Westeros.
Isabella is Queen of England, seething over her husband’s infidelities. King Edward is homosexual, flaunting his new lover and retreating completely from Isabella’s bed since she had his lover killed. Dissatisfied with her lot in life, Isabella loathes her sisters-in-law whose husbands have not treated them so poorly. Robert of Artois, Isabella’s cousin, loathes the sisters-in-law as well because he feels he was robbed of his inheritance. Robert and Isabella plot to expose suspected infidelities on the part of the sisters-in-law.
Other characters are drawn into the story: the young dreamer who is a banker by profession serves as a secret messenger, a servant aids her mistress in plotting revenge, various personages at both courts. All add flavour but the Iron King, at 274 pages, is not a door-stopper like GRRM’s books.
As a historical novel set in the fourteenth century, the Iron King mentions use of witchcraft and curses. These curses are effective as human agents use chemical components to affect outcomes. There were times I felt that Druon was dancing on the line between historical fiction and fantasy but in the final accounting it appears that Druon has tried to balance being faithful to the period and historical records with writing a captivating story. There are a series of footnotes at the end of the book, providing greater insight and understanding to the period and terms used throughout the novel. NOTE: Doctor Gillian Polack made a few pithy comments on twitter about the novel’s historical inaccuracies; I’m not aware of the discrepancies but we’ve now been warned not to take the story as fact.
If the Game of Thrones books are too long for you – as I’ve heard some say – then this series may be a more comfortable read. I recommend the Iron King as an enjoyable way of absorbing some history, although I would like an accounting of what is known from record and what is fictionalised for the sake of the story: this is something I appreciated that was included in Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave books. Druon’s writing – and this translation – are engaging and entertaining; I am reminded of Apollo 13, a movie that successfully combined historical fact with the key elements of engaging storytelling. Highly recommended for fans of Game of Thrones, fans of Kate Forsythe’s Bitter Greens and historical novels.