Even though I'm French Canadian, it's thanks to George R. R. Martin that I recently discovered the excellent The Accursed Kings by French author Maurice Druon. Having enjoyed both The Iron King and The Strangled Queen, I was curious to see what the third installment would have in store for readers.
But unlike its predecessors, The Poisoned Crown failed to live up to expectations, through no fault of the author. Indeed, it has more to do with the fact that the book focuses on Louis X's brief reign. A feeble and arrogant man, the Hutin is far from an engaging character and his many ineptitudes signal the beginning of the end of an era for the kingdom of France.
Here's the blurb:
No man is impervious to the poisons of the crown… Having murdered his wife and exiled his mistress, King Louis X of France becomes besotted with Princess Clemence of Hungary and makes her his new Queen. However, though the matter of the succession should be assured, it is far from so, as Louis embarks on an ill-fated war against Flanders. Where his father, Philip IV, was strong, Louis is weak, and the ambitions of his proud, profligate barons threaten his power and the future of a kingdom once ruled by an Iron King.
Having had his wife murdered to pave the way for his marriage to Clemence of Hungary, King Louis X doesn't seem to realize that he needs more than secure the succession to restore order within the borders of his kingdom. Famine plunged France into chaos and his inability to hold in balance the infighting between the ambitious factions undermining his reign has brought France on the brink of collapse. As always, Maurice Druon demonstrates that he has an incredible eye for historical details and his narrative truly comes alive as you read along.
Once more, I found the translation to be quite good. As was the case in the first two volumes, it is at times literal, creating occasional odd turns of phrase here and there. But other than that, nothing to complain about. As is usually his wont, instead of relying on info-dumps, Druon opted for footnotes sending you to the back of the novel for more historical background and clarification. This maintains a fluid pace throughout, and one reaches the end all too quickly. In a day and age when SFF and historical novels are veritable doorstopper works of fiction, these books are decidedly short. Too short, if you ask me. They are episodic in nature, and instead of a seven-book cycle the reissue of The Accursed Kings should probably have been released as a trilogy. Given the price of novels, this may have worked better with a few omnibus editions instead of going for the original seven installments.
The structure of these works revolves around a number of disparate POVs which allow readers to witness events through the eyes of a variety of protagonists. This help generate more emotional impact, as you see the web of scandal and intrigue which weaves itself around the Louis X and his entourage from both sides of the conflict. The king's POV, though a necessary evil as the tale focuses on his short reign, is not as interesting as other points of view. Louis X is not the sharpest tool in the shed and he spends most of the book digging his own grave, so to speak. To give you an example, imagine being forced to wade through a Lancel Lannister POV in the ASOIAF books. Pious to a fault, the young Clemence of Hungary is another protagonist whose POV isn't as compelling as I thought it would be. As was the case with the previous volumes, the often amusing POV of Guccio Baglioni helps create a bit of a balance with the darker elements of the main story arc.
All in all, The Poisoned Crown doesn't stand as well on its own as its predecessors. Still, Maurice Druon weaves many threads in what is undoubtedly a great tapestry and I have a feeling that this third volume is more of a transition book meant to bridge the storylines of the first two installments with what will come after. God knows that it opens the door for countless possibilities which will certainly be explored in The Royal Succession and subsequent installments.
With family rivalries, politicking, betrayals and back-stabbings, ASOIAF fans will find a lot to love about Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings. And considering that these books were first published in the 50s, I have to admit that they have aged well and are as easy to read as any contemporary novels on the market today.