Like many other SFF readers, it's thanks to George R. R. Martin that I recently discovered the excellent The Accursed Kings by French author Maurice Druon. As the main inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, I was eager to give this series a shot. The first two installments, The Iron King and The Strangled Queen, were very good reads, but the third volume, The Poisoned Crown, failed to live up to the expectations generated by its predecessors. This last book focused on Louis X's brief reign. A feeble and arrogant man, the Hutin was far from an engaging character and his many ineptitudes signaled the beginning of the end of an era for the kingdom of France.
As unfit to rule as Louis X turned out to be, his death will plunge the country into chaos, and this fourth installment focuses on the aftermath of the king's murder. And against this disorderly and dangerous backdrop, a new Pope must be elected. Hence, we have all the ingredients required for another satisfying read. And it is just that!
Here's the blurb:
'No woman shall succeed in Salique land' Louis X is dead, poisoned, murdered, by the hand of Mahaut d’Artois. Her plan is simple – to clear the path to the throne for her son-in-law Philippe. However, there is the small matter of Queen Clemence and her unborn child. As the country is thrown into turmoil, Philippe of Poitiers must use any means necessary to save his country from anarchy. However, how far is he willing to go to clear his path to the throne and become King in his own right?
If Clemence survives and her unborn child turns out to be a boy, a Regent will have to be named. Otherwise, France shall have a new King and the ambitious factions which undermined Louis' reign and brought the kingdom on the brink of collapse will now fight in order to put their respective leader on top. Meanwhile, in Lyons the Cardinals are holding Conclave and must elect the man who will become the new Pope. But the Conclave is also riddled with opposing factions and the fate of Christendom hangs in the balance. Once more, Maurice Druon demonstrates that he has an incredible eye for historical details and his narrative truly comes alive as you read along.
Once again, I found the translation to be quite good. As was the case in the first three installments, it is at times literal, creating occasional odd turns of phrase here and there. But other than that, there's absolutely nothing to complain about. As is habitually 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 the novel, and one reaches the end all too quickly. As I said before, in this day and age when speculative fiction and historical books are veritable doorstopper works of fiction, these novels are quite short. Too short, if you ask me. Indeed, 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, or as omnibus editions containing three or four volumes each.
The structure of these books revolves around a number of disparate POVs which allow readers to witness events through the eyes of a variety of protagonists. This helps generate more emotional impact, as you see the web of scandal and intrigue which weaves itself around Clemence and her unborn child from both sides of the conflict. Monseigneur Duèze and Guccio's points of view provide readers with a perspective of what goes on during the Conclave. The conflict between Robert of Artois and Philippe of Poitiers takes center stage, first regarding the Regency and then the crowning of a new monarch. Fate has a lot in store for Marie de Cressay in this novel and her POV takes us behind the scene for a lot of unexpected developments. 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.
The Poisoned Crown didn't stand as well on its own as its predecessors. But The Royal Succession sets the bar as high as the first two volumes. Maurice Druon continues to weave a vast number of threads in what is a great tapestry of men, women, and events that will shake the foundations of the kingdom of France and the rest of Europe.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: With family rivalries, politicking, betrayals and back-stabbings, ASOIAF fans will find a lot to love about Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings. Especially with this fourth volume, which is the darkest one yet. 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.