Like many other speculative fiction readers, it's thanks to George R. R. Martin that I discovered the excellent The Accursed Kings by French author Maurice Druon a few years back. As the main inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, I was eager to give this series a shot. The first two installments turned out to be very good reads, but the third volume failed to live up to the expectations generated by its predecessors. The Royal Succession was a return to form for the author and I was looking forward to see if the fifth book would offer the same satisfying reading experience.
The last installment ended with Philippe V's coronation, but The She-Wolf totally skips over his reign and focuses on the tale of his sister Isabella, wife of Edward II and Queen of England. Which is a bit odd, as previous volumes followed one another more closely. I figure that Philippe V's reign was relatively uneventful, at least compared to that of his recent predecessors, so perhaps there was no point in having a full novel dedicated to the years he spent as the French sovereign.
Here's the blurb:
‘This was the original game of thrones’ George R.R. Martin Charles IV is now king of France and his sister is Edward II of England’s Queen. Having been imprisoned by Edward as leader of the rebellious English barons, Roger Mortimer escapes to France, where he joins the war against the English Aquitaine. But it is his love affair with Isabella, the ‘She-Wolf of France’, who has come seemingly to negotiate a treaty of peace that seals his fate…
When Philippe the Long died without any male heirs, the crown went to his younger brother Charles de la Marche, known as the Fair. A handsome but simple-minded monarch, he is hardly fit to rule. Most of the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom are thus left to the powerful Count of Valois and once more there are talks of a new crusade in the Middle East. Across the Channel, England is ruled by an unstable and incompetent king who neglects his rightful wife in favor of a passionate affair with another man. Humiliated both as wife and queen, it appears that Isabella, daughter of the Iron King, has indeed carried the dreadful curse of the Templars on the other side of the English Channel. No one ever escaped from the Tower of London, or so it is said. But when Roger Mortimer of Wigmore is rescued from prison and flees to France, it will set in motion a chain of events that will have grave repercussions in both kingdoms.
I found the translation to be quite good. As was the case with the other installments, it is at times too literal, creating occasional odd turns of phrase. But other than that, there's absolutely nothing to complain about. As is habitually his wont, instead of relying on info-dumps, Druon once again 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, which is good. 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, I've always felt. Weighing in at 428 pages, The She-Wolf is the longest volume to date. And yet, the more important page count did not translate into a more convoluted and enjoyable story. Having more to do with England, this latest installment somehow felt a bit incongruous compared to those that came before.
The structure of these books continues to revolve 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 Queen Isabella's desertion of her husband, her falling in love with Roger Mortimer, and her desire to raise an army and travel back to England to put her son on the throne. As a matter of course, Roger Mortimer and Isabella have their points of view. As the daughter of the Iron King, I was expecting her to be a strong woman. Alas, she was portrayed as needy and desperate, often a puppet eager to please her jealous and manipulative lover. So much for the she-wolf of France. . . Spinello Tolomei returns as a POV character, and it's always interesting to discover just how involved in everything the Lombards were at the time. The Count de Bouville travels to Avignon to meet with the Pope and revelations made to the Holy Father may change the course of history. Guccio Baglioni and Marie de Cressay also have POVs, though their storylines remain in the background for the most part. Always in the thick of things, Robert of Artois' perspective is also part of this novel.
The She-Wolf didn't stand as well on its own as I thought it would. Which is too bad, for The Royal Succession had set the bar as high as the first two volumes following a somewhat disappointing third installment. 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. That hasn't changed. And yet, focusing more on the demise of King Edward II instead of the intrigues of the King of France's court, The She-Wolf felt like some sort of interlude and was a bit discordant in the greater scheme of things.
I keep saying it: With family rivalries, politicking, betrayals and back-stabbings, ASOIAF fans will find a lot to love about Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings. And given the fact that these books were first published back in the 50s, they have definitely aged well and are as easy to read as any contemporary novels on the market today. I'm eager to find out what will happen next!