I hate the word unputdownable. I really do. But I’m going to use it, because that’s exactly what The Iron King is: terribly difficult to put down once the cover is cracked. I shouldn’t be surprised as the series comes highly recommended by none other than George R. R. Martin himself, and it’s easy to see how Martin was inspired by this historical epic.
Humphrey Hare has done an excellent job of translating this French epic into English, and although I haven’t read the originals, I can see that he has kept, as much as possible, to the tone and texture of Druon’s narrative. The story reads almost lyrically and I found it simply gorgeous. Druon, understandably, makes multiple references to quirks of European history which would have been lost to me without the aid of the footnotes Hare adds, and I deeply appreciated them, although I concede that there is a potential to distract readers.
Set in the turbulent year of the collapse of the Templars at the hands of the French monarchy and the Papalcy, The Iron King combines political and family intrigue with hints of magic and witchcraft that will have readers on their edge of their seats. There’s enough assassination, treachery, adultery and corruption to keep readers entertained, and it’s not hindered, as many historical epics are, by overexposure of every detail of life in the 14th century. In fact, the story is refreshingly sparse when it comes to details about gowns and costumes, food, furnishings and other trappings of noble life.
King Philip, his two brothers, three sons, and his daughter (the wife of King Edward II of England) are wonderfully realised and realistically portrayed – displaying relatable shortcomings, fears and motivations. Of the many intertwined story lines, the most compelling, for me, are those of Queen Isabella, unhappily married to a homosexual King, and her cousin, Robert of Valois, who seeks revenge against his aunt for taking away his inheritance. I also enjoyed the adventures the young Guccio has as the protégé of his uncle, a Lombard banker who lends money to nobles, churches and the King himself. Considering the emphasis the blurb places on the adultery of the Princes’ wives, I felt I didn’t get to know the three princesses very well, but I feel I will get to know them a lot better in the coming books. The treachery of the royal wives is, surprisingly, a small stone among many others that starts the avalanche that cripples the royal family.
Around the stories of these individuals lie deeper, more subtle concerns: the shift in social thought to give the people, the bourgeoisie, the power to take part in the governing process; the power the Lombards, the bankers, have over the Crown, and the question of how to fund the French kingdom, when the money of the persecuted Jews, and now the Templars, has been spent. I think that Druon has admirably drawn attention to these issues without turning his novel into a historical exposition on French politics and interests at the time. He keeps it light, easy to read and entertaining, but at the same time it’s clear that a lot of research has gone into the book.
The Iron King is not to be missed by admirers of the likes of George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Joe Abercrombie, and is a great starting point for readers who like their stories magic-light. I am eagerly awaiting the publication of the second volume of the series, The Strangled Queen, which looks like it will be released in April 2013.