I first encountered Maurice Druon’s ‘Accursed Kings’ series by accident, as is often the case with good things. There I was browsing idly when up popped a copy of The Iron King (book one of the series), with a banner recommendation by no less than George R.R. Martin, calling it the ‘original Game of Thrones.’
As a dyed-in-the-wool Thronie, my curiosity went into overdrive and naturally I bought it. A couple of years later I’ve finally navigated my way through all seven books.
With my own fantasy writing heavily grounded in an alternative Europe, for which I still have to research a lot of real history, I’ve long been of the conclusion that a good historical novel is a difficult thing to pull off. There’s the research of course but also the issue that because the facts are (largely) known, one has to buy into the journey, which implies that the writing has to be especially good.
That wasn’t an issue for me with The Accursed Kings, since I knew nothing of the demise of the french Capet dynasty after the Templars have put a curse upon King Philip the Fair. The plots alone make worthy novels and the writing, even in translation is very good.
The first four books of the series are particularly fine since they follow swiftly, one upon the other, and really make one long tale. For whatever reason Druon then chooses to gloss over the five year’s of Philippe the Long’s reign, picking up the history again with the accession of Charles IV and the estrangement between Queen Isabella (his sister) and Edward II of England. I found the fifth book, The She Wolf, a drag compared to the others, not only because of this gap but perhaps because it is largely either set in, or to do with England and therefore has a lot of new characters to get to know.
In real history of course, people do age and die inconveniently but Druon does manage to find unifying threads to run through most or all of the series, notably the relationship between the nobles and the Lombard bankers personified by the kind yet cunning Tolomei, the unfettered ambitions of the egregious Charles of Valois and last but not least the terrible feud over the possession of the county of Artois running between the larger than life Robert of Artois (who I always see in my head as Gerard Depardieu when reading) and his disgraceful aunt Mahaut.
The books do get bogged down in history from time to time, not least because in real life names of characters do not have to differ from each other so conveniently. Thus in book six, The Lily and the Lion, one has to try and keep track of Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (‘The Lame’), Dowager Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (‘The Widow’), Jeanne of Burgundy (wife of the Duke of Burgundy), Dowager Queen Jeanne of Evreux, Queen Jeanne of Navarre, Jeanne of Valois (Countess of Hainaut) and her brother Jean of Hainaut and Jeanne of Valois-Courtenay (Countess of Beaumont). Ouch!
Within the series there are many memorable characters. I most enjoyed the arc of Louis X ‘The Hutin’ going from petulant fool to competent ruler following his happy marriage to the beautiful and devout Clemence of Hungary. The portrayals of Edward III of England and Cardinal Dueze (later to become Pope John XXII) were also exceptionally well done.
It has apparently been long widely known that George R.R. Martin cites Druon’s series as an inspiration for his own A Song of Ice and Fire series, though I hadn’t known this until I picked up The Iron King. Martin even furnishes an introduction for the new editions of Druon’s books (The Iron King was written in the mid 1950’s) in which he outlines the general similarities between the two series (lust, intrigue, violent death and so forth). It’s impossible to read both series without picking up on specific things too. Of course I’m not saying Martin deliberately lifted them (after all Joffrey Baratheon is an almost perfect carbon copy of Derxis of Akkama but Martin has never cited E.R. Eddison as an inspiration) but they were no doubt lodged in his subconscious.
It’s maybe fun to mention a few that stand out. Foremost is the device of swapping a royal baby with a common one to save the life of the former, which Martin calls out himself in his introduction. Others include (i) the small circular prison cell of Edward II which has a deep dry well shaft in the middle which he fears to fall down to his death if he sleeps, which recalls the sky cells of the Eyrie in ASOIAF, (ii) Queen Isabella relating how Edward II would bring his lover Hugh the Younger to her bed to arouse him so that he could then perform with her, which recalls the Margaery, Renly, Loras proposition in ASOIAF and (iii) the references to the red keep of Kenilworth castle, foreshadowing Martin’s Red Keep.
Overall there is more than enough in the Accursed Kings series to satisfy a hardened fantasy fan. Given the time it is set in there is plenty of room for the unexplained and the supernatural. The Templar’s curse that sets it all off is a key example but there are enough other mystical visions, spells, potions, poisoned candles and acts of Satanism to maintain interest. The standout fantastical character running through the series is the gorgeous femme fatale Beatrice d’Hirson, Mahaut’s Devil-worshipping consigliera.