The Iron King - Maurice Druon George R. R. Martin once wrote in a blog post that if you love his A Song of Ice and Fire series and are looking for "something like it", then you really need to check out The Iron King by Maurice Druon. In the newest edition of the book's foreword, he calls it the "original game of thrones" and credits it for being one of the great historical novels that inspired his own epic series.

Even if I hadn't known all this, the parallels are clear; this is only the first book of The Accursed Kings series and already it has it all, just without the fantasy elements -- conspiracies, assassinations, illicit affairs, royal scandals, rivaling families, public executions, lies, sex, betrayals and torture and poisonings and death curses, oh my.

Originally written in French and published in the mid-1950s, the books in this series were long out of print and apparently quite difficult to get your hands on, until now. Fortunately, the English translation of the first book recently made it back into print (with the rest to follow, I hear), thus resulting in yours truly just about tripping over her own feet rushing to press the "buy" button for the Kindle version. Even without GRRM's glowing recommendation, I'm always up for good historical fiction, especially books involving European monarchies and the Middle Ages.

The Iron King is a fascinating take on the events which preceded and led up to arguably one of the most significant conflicts of the medieval period, The Hundred Years' War. King Philip IV of France, called "The Iron King" because of his aloof nature and severe rule, sentences the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar Jacques de Molay to burn at the stake. Upon his death, the Templar maintains his innocence and publicly curses the three men whom he feels has unjustly put him there: Pope Clement, King Philip, and Guillaume de Nogaret, Keeper of the Seals.

Meanwhile, all is not well in Philip's family. Two of his sons, Louis and Charles are being cuckolded by their wives, cousins Marguerite and Blanche of Burgundy. If that wasn't bad enough, his third son's wife, Jeanne of Burgundy, is also privy to these affairs, even if she doesn't cheat herself. When Philip's only daughter Isabella discovers what the Burgundy women are doing to her three brothers, she begins scheming to expose them, and Robert III of Artois, who harbors a deep hatred for the Burgundys, is only all too happy to help.

The scandal is blown wide open, of course, as we know from the events of the Tour de Nesle Affair. The king and his family recall the the last words uttered by Grand Master Jacques de Molay: "Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!" Are the troubles involving the unfaithful wives part of the curse? Or is the worst yet to come?

I have to say, I liked this book a lot. The story takes quite a bit of time to get get set up, but then so much of the history and the characters have to be detailed and introduced. As the reader, I felt I needed the ramp-up time to refresh myself on the historical facts and get all those "Philip"s, "Charles"s and "Louis"s sorted out anyway. As always, trying to keep names in order is a common occupational hazard when reading historical fiction about European kings and queens. However, all the people and events Druon decided to include and write about in his storytelling are there for a reason, building up and forming a cogent picture by the end of the book.

Also, fair warning: the writing can be a little hard on the eyes. As with many books translated from their original language, it's not always pretty. I'm not sure this can be helped, and I certainly don't hold that against the author or the translator; sometimes, that's just the way things are. I admit I've had better times with other translated-to-English books, but then again, I've also had worse. The experience was definitely not as rough as I expected after seeing other reviews talking about the same topic, and to me the book was still very readable and easy to get into.

See this review and others at The BiblioSanctum.