As a result of our unfortunate choice to major in European History back in our university years, A Reader's Respite is cursed when it comes to historical fiction: we both crave it and at the same time find ourselves extremely critical of the genre. Rare is the historical fiction writer who can be historically accurate (don't be making sh!t up just to fill pages, history is interesting enough as it is) while not putting the reader into a coma with boredom (historical fiction should not read like an academic textbook). Sadly, there aren't enough novels that fill this criteria to meet our historical fiction needs.
But we're nothing if not game. And when we spied a big ol' flashy book ad on a website - are we the only ones who fall for those flashy ads? - with a glowing blurb from George R.R. Martin, off to the library we went.
The Iron King expertly chronicles the kerfluffles of King Philip IV's reign over France during the latter part of the 13th century. It's important to point out here that this is a historical fiction novel, not a fantasy as some readers inferred just because Martin blurbed it. And it's good historical fiction. Ol' Phil the Fair, as he was known, was not the most jocular of rulers, although he was a handsome little devil:
"Under his reign France was great and the French wretched."
Author Maurice Druon, who passed away in 2009, masterfully re-tells the story with accuracy and flair enough to keep even the most jaded reader interested. It's not easy to generate much sympathy for Phil the Fair, but Druon does illuminate the difficult decisions this man faced throughout his reign, including how to manage his incredibly unfit-to-rule eldest son.
"He looked at his children as if he had never seen them before, and wondered about the value of primogeniture; he thought nature often served the law of the throne extremely ill."
The scandal caused by his faithless daughters-in-law put Phil in a bind, as well. What to do with the little tarts? He could lop off their heads, but that would leave his sons without wives and, therefore, without little heirs anytime soon. He could lock them up, but that would leave his sons unable to re-marry and the new Pope wasn't disposed to be handing out annulments. (So what did he do? We're not telling...you know how to use Google.)
"Those called upon to play a decisive part in the history of nations are more often than not unaware of the destinies they embody."
The Original French Version
Interestingly enough, Druon originally wrote this novel (along with six others, all following the rulers of France) in the 1950s in France. They were so popular among French readers that they were turned into television movies and eventually translated into English to be sold as mass-market paperbacks (with some horrid covers in the 1960s, we might add). It wasn't until this year that HarperCollins (bless their souls) decided to re-release these fabulous novels. They are even - for the first time ever - translating the seventh and final novel into English for publication, making HarperCollins our favorite publisher. Ever.
Title: The Iron King (Book One of The Accursed Kings)
Author: Maurice Druon
Source: Our local library. But we are so buying our own copy so we can have the entire collection.
Rating: 4.5 stars...we ate this one up!